Since I Left You (Modular/EMI)
Iconic and iconoclastic, crucially Australian but purely international, the peak of a movement and one reason for the end of that movement, Since I Left You is singular and in many real ways unrepeatable. Even, or especially so, for the men who made it 20 years ago.
Just holding this substantial reissue package – a four-disc vinyl version with the original album spread across four sides, a further four sides of extras such as a track featuring MF Doom, and a swag of remixes, a poster and detailed artwork on all surfaces of the double gatefold sleeve, plus a not exactly easy to read but nonetheless valuable essay from writer/historian Simon Reynolds spread across the inner sleeve in a Joycean flow of thought – it may feel like history and the contemporary merged.
Hearing it tells you that dance, electronica, hip hop and pop today sound like they do in part because of what was done here. Less obviously perhaps, but nonetheless true, so does rock in its various forms. Even the corners of rock which seem intent on living wholly in a semi-mythical past of “pure” sounds and traditional writing.
There’s no date stamp on the sounds, the feel or the result. This still sounds gorgeous and incredibly detailed in the ear, sparkling in the brain, and revealing, in its consistent reality, the way pleasure and the abstract can be given equal weight with the mechanical and practical.
However, there’s an obvious technical, or at least legal, reason why this album couldn’t be made today. This was the culmination of a musical approach whose founding principle, sampling, was the assumption/reclamation/reassignment – or, if you prefer, straight out taking – of existing sounds from any source hands could be laid on, to be used in the construction of new songs made from (literally) thousands of parts.
As Reynolds explains in his essay, for The Avalanches – then Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann (who left in the years after this album), as the principal producers, and Tony Di Blasi and Gordon McQuitten (who left too, sooner) – this album that sat “somewhere between a symphony and the ultimate deejay set”, celebrated the great, the intuitive, the surprising and sensual, and the not so great, as equals in potential.
Along with melodic and rhythmic gems they had “an uncanny knack for spotting barely perceptible slivers of gold secreted within the crud, [could] perceive the latent ecstatic potential trapped inside an outwardly unpromising MOR release,” Reynolds says. “[Finding] a redemptive purpose for the unloved and unsuccessful detritus left behind by an industry predicated on overproduction and market saturation”.
This sampling free-for-all ended because copyright lawyers got fat on the proceeds as artists and producers who had made the sounds originally quite rightly said, um, that’s mine, and that’s mine, and that sequence over, yeah, that’s mine too.
(Appropriately, but no less amusingly for that, the album today carries a copyright warning for anyone thinking of avalanching The Avalanches that “unauthorised reproduction is a violation of applicable laws”.)
The less quantifiable but at least as important reason why Since I Left You wouldn’t be repeated, is the emotional landscape on which it was built. There’s a freedom of thinking, of inquisitiveness without hesitation of second thoughts and already known truths, and of optimism in the marrow of these tracks.
Sounds spring forth like doors flung open joyously; nuggets of beauty are revealed casually, almost overlooked even, because there’s always going to be more isn’t there?; jagged sections resolve not by softening but by absorption and expansion; movement is varied, never locked down, but always poised; discovery is constant, as is the celebration of that discovery; and it always hits you as music, not work.
It’s why the remixes on this reissue are regularly engaging, often enough pretty fab, and definitely worth the investment, but they still come in the shadow of the originals rather than enhancements of them.
Since I Left doesn’t feel like the trio unbound at last; it feels like the trio before the binds. It feels like a “now” that was predicting the future though it wasn’t even thinking about it.
The contrast may be found in the albums which followed, albeit followed a decade and a half, and one lost member, later for the first of them, the brain-exploding Wildflower. That incredible sonic journey, made with new constraints on the sampling principle that still couldn’t keep Chater and De Blasi confined, was a full body impact that charged into the fray with the zest of men who actually had been confined.
Being unable to make and finish what would come next for so long fuelled the excitement, energy, and the tendency of Wildflower to take and shake, to predict a future by trying to make it happen now.
And then there was last year’s We Will Always Love You, a record that came only a few years, not half a lifetime, after its predecessor, but more importantly emerged in a year when enforced isolation, constant threats, existential dread and the clear knowledge that we had no control coloured everything, turning our gaze inwards but our needs outwards.
That masterpiece of an album, their second masterpiece 20 years after their first, was more than the record we - and clearly The Avalanches – needed, it was a record that set aside the future to reflect and fill the present, and yet somehow offered the prospect of a future. A better one.
But not an unexplained or unforeseen one. In fact, the more I listen to Since I Left You across all eight sides here, the more I begin to feel that that future we grabbed for in Wildflower and unknowingly yearned for in We Will Always Love You, is embedded not just in its grooves and in its makers, but in any of us listening.
So maybe I was wrong: this album is singular but it is also repeatable. Because it has to be.