On their first album, the Avalanches whisked us away into a waking dream. On their second, they snapped us back to reality and stepped us out into a bustling city under the light of day. Their third tours us through the darkness of night and the starry expanse overhead.
Out this week, We Will Always Love You arrives relatively quickly by Avalanches standards. The Melbourne production crew famously took 16 years to follow up their landmark 2000 debut Since I Left You. By comparison, the four-year interim since their 2016 comeback album Wildflower feels like a blip. Yet much has changed in the Avalanches’ world since then. As detailed in a New York Times profile last week, Robbie Chater, one of two remaining members of the group, checked into a detox facility in early 2017 and got sober. His bandmate Tony Di Blasi, who at several points had believed the Avalanches were kaputt, instead ended up fulfilling the project’s tour dates with a backing band while Chater sobered up. When Chater checked out of rehab, he rejoined the Avalanches’ touring company, and they became, in Di Blasi’s words, a “normal band” for the first time.
In interviews, Di Blasi and Chater sound relieved to be rid of the Avalanches’ extraordinary circumstances. “Now we’re just a regular band instead of the band who made an amazing debut everyone’s talking about,” Chater told NME. The puncturing of the duo’s mystique is a blessing for listeners too. Since I Left You, a surreal sample collage that felt like a retro beach party and a transcontinental voyage all at once, set an impossible bar for the group. Wildflower was never going to live up to its legend — and although the album at times recaptured its predecessor’s brisk, hallucinatory vibe, the introduction of live vocals ensured it would be a different kind of project, one that had as much in common with Gorillaz’s colorful guest-star parade as fellow crate-diggers like DJ Shadow and the Dust Brothers. Wildflower was a great album in its own right, but perhaps more importantly in the scope of the Avalanches’ career, it gave them something of a clean slate to work with.
On We Will Always Love You, they fill that canvas with the vast expanse of the cosmos. The album was reportedly inspired by the majesty of outer space, the light from celestial bodies, and the romance between starry-eyed scientists Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan, who attempted to encapsulate the human experience on a pair of golden records blasted into space in 1977 — mixtapes of a sort that included everything from Beethoven to Navajo chants to a recording of Druyan’s brain waves while she thought about “the wonder of love, of being in love.” (The album art is a photo of Druyan run through a spectograph, turned into sound, then processed back into an image.) Spanning 25 tracks over 72 minutes, the resulting album mimics the beautiful, mysterious sprawl of the nighttime horizon as it explores questions about death, the afterlife, and the stars. Though tinged with a similar awe, the emotions it conjures aren’t always as warm and fuzzy as Druyan’s lovestruck elation.
Like the other two Avalanches albums, We Will Always Love You is an odyssey. Each track feels like an encounter with some new character or a scenic passageway in between outposts. The Avalanches assembled a staggering cast of vocalists — Karen O! Kurt Vile! Leon Bridges! Blood Orange! Rivers Cuomo! Vashti Bunyan! Pink Siifu! Neneh Cherry! Cornelius! Tricky! Sampa The Great! Denzel Curry! Johnny Marr! Cola Boyy! Perry Farrell! — plugging them into an arc that, if not expressly narrative, is working hard to communicate some deep emotional truth about human existence. It’s like a loosely supernatural movie or RPG that takes place entirely after nightfall, populated with colorful characters and spirits that speak through the samples: some ebullient, others weighed down by ache.
That heaviness comes through on lead single “We Will Always Love You,” which properly initiates the proceedings after a couple of scene-setting atmospheric tracks. Against a shadowy trip-hop backbeat and keyboard flourishes that twinkle like stars, Dev Hynes’ voice intermingles with samples of Smokey Robinson and the Roches. It sounds like an extraterrestrial encounter or a divine visitation. From there we’re off to psychedelic disco with MGMT and Johnny Marr (and again with Perry Farrell), spectral soul with Leon Bridges, otherworldly rap with Denzel Curry and Sampa The Great, ethereal folk with Kurt Vile, and a joyous inter-dimensional dancefloor encounter between Karen O, Cola Boyy, and Mick Jones, among other pit stops.
Helping to blur the divide between the physical and the spiritual is a change in the Avalanches’ approach. The group still relies heavily on sampling, but those hundreds of audio snippets are blended with live vocals and instrumentation, so that the old sound-collage effect becomes part of the fabric of more conventional pop music. Sometimes the vocals sound like samples, as when Sananda Maitreya mournfully sings, “You see life’s a bitch, and habit-forming too/ And if I can’t have it, then why the hell should you?” Sometimes the samples sound more like new recordings, like the “Born To Lose” refrain, “Actually, he died of a broken heart.” Sometimes the live vocals become recurring samples, as when Cola Boyy tells Karen O, “We send our love to you, Karen.” Although there are instrumentals on the album that maintain that connection to the original Since I Left You aesthetic — the throbbing disco-house track “Music Makes Me High,” peppered with enough random noise to sound like a crowded nightclub, is a highlight of the form — more often that classic Avalanches sound becomes enmeshed in something shinier and more direct.
Perhaps shiniest of all is “Running Red Lights,” the most straightforwardly poppy Avalanches song to date. Buried near the back of the album, it finds Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo brightly singing about Erwin Schrödinger, The Book Thief, and California over a wistful, expensive-sounding backbeat. It’s not hard to imagine the song soundtracking an automobile ad. Yet even this overtly commercial version of the Avalanches finds poignancy and a connection to the great beyond by bringing in Pink Siifu to read lyrics from the late David Berman’s Purple Mountains classic “Darkness And Cold.” The lines fit perfectly within the album’s themes of love, loss, and spectral beauty: “The light of my life is going out tonight/ In a pink champagne Corvette/ The light in my life is going out tonight/ Without a flicker of regret.” The song marks the moment when the Avalanches complete their transformation into a “normal band,” but it also works beautifully as the climax of this richly conceived project, one that finds the duo staring out into space and seeing that endless possibility reflected back in themselves.
We Will Always Love You is out 12/11 on Astralwerks.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Kid Cudi’s as yet unheard Man On The Moon III: The Chosen.
• Boldy James & Real Bad Man’s Real Bad Boldy.
• Jack Harlow’s debut album That’s What They All Say.
• Boris With Merzbow’s 2R0I2P0.
• Guided By Voices’ Styles We Paid For.
• Kamaiyah’s No Explanations.
• All Things Blue’s Get Bit.
• Rosie Carney’s album-length cover of Radiohead’s The Bends.
• Gillian Welch’s archival Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs.
• Deftones’ White Pony remix album Black Stallion.
• Covers EPs from James Blake and Muzz, both titled Covers.
• Nilüfer Yanya’s Feeling Lucky? EP.
• Belle And Sebastian’s live album What To Look For In Summer.
• Osees’ remix collection Panther Rotate.
• The Kills’ rarities collection Little Bastards.
• M. Ward’s Billie Holiday covers set Think Of Spring.
• Ogbert The Nerd’s I Don’t Hate You.
• Foxy Shazam’s Burn.
• Less Than Jake’s Silver Linings.
• Peter Bjorn And John’s Endless Play EP
• Vol. 1 of the Cyberpunk 2077 soundtrack.
• Cro-Mags’ 2020 EP.
• Heem’s (not Heems’) Long Story Short.
• Yo-Yo Ma & Kathryn Stott’s Songs Of Comfort And Hope.