We Will Always Love You (Modular/EMI)
I expected to be gobsmacked by the new Avalanches album: it’s a given on the basis of their two previous albums of astonishing creativity, adventure and innovation. Tony Di Blasi and Robbie Chater have rewritten sonic and practical rules - and in some cases, whole legal policies – in the past 20 years.
I was fully prepared for being spun around, pinged, shaken, and then walking away from the experience with the buzz of someone on pharmacist-grade enhancements. Prior to sitting down to write this I took another look at my review of its predecessor, the stunning aural experience that was 2016’s long-delayed second album, Wildflower, and just reading about it had my settings peaking in the red.
What I was not expecting, what I am still not dealing with completely, was to be moved, and moved so comprehensively. Not physically – or not just physically - but emotionally. We Will Always Love You is an album that gets you in the feels and resolutely refuses to let go.
Sometimes, it’s beautifully sad - without the imposition of obvious hurt or outright loss to weigh it down - accepting that yes, we do go on, hurting each other. At others it makes the idea of release through movement naturally euphoric, as if our bodies are uncurling (from a foetal position?) and opening to sensation again.
Often, it’s gently attractive, moving us along with a degree of “let it go” encouragement that is about the promise of what’s next rather than explaining what’s happened. And regularly it just wraps itself around us and carries us along on a groove, on a flow, on a feeling.
Maybe it’s just having made it to the end of this hell year that has me reacting like this. Or for that matter maybe that’s what it was like for The Avalanches, from Melbourne which had some of the darkest moments of Australia’s Covid experience, emerging mostly intact from the year. But I think that’s only part of the story.
There’s a strong undercurrent of the comfort that comes from shared feeling throughout this record. At any point you might choose to stop - the buoyant, propulsive in-the-moment ones as much as the wistful, looking back at what was/might have been ones – there’s a real sense of all of us knowing exactly what they mean, beyond words.
The most telling way to explain this may be that the word that has come to mind the most for me over the days spent listening over and over is gentleness. And after Wildflower and 2000’s Since I Left You, I doubt anyone would have thought to use that word with The Avalanches.
On the surface, this probably shouldn’t be happening. Di Blasi and Chater are working on the same basis as they have before: constructing songs from myriad, often dizzying in their variety, sound sources; blending new sounds, voices and rhythms in and around this source material; consequently, coming at you from multiple points of view that in theory dilute the potential for any singular tone/basis.
As ever, there’s a lot in this.
Rather than getting into what and who are sampled (who has that much time unless you’re a clearance lawyer getting paid by the hour?) I’ll say it involves spoken word and cut up rhythm patterns, contemporary and historical pop, soul, rock and more, and variations on bleeps and ambient textures. And if you didn’t catch the reference earlier, a tweaked take on The Carpenters.
Instead of listing every person involved here’s a taste of the contributing artists. There’s 21st century indie-troubadour Kurt Vile and the refugee from the acid ‘90s Perry Farrell; Japanese teenager based in Maine, Orono Noguchi, and Japanese electronica veteran, Cornelius; multi-generational/multi-national hip hop trio Denzel Curry, Tricky and Sampa The Great - on the one track; alterna-pop maven Rivers Cuomo and smooth soul revivalist Leon Bridges; and both once-lost ‘60s folkie Vashti Bunyan and irrepressible guitar man Johnny Marr.
And a quick scan of the track listing will tell you that there are 25 separate tracks, which seems a lot, an avalanche of inputs if you will.
But let’s clear that last hurdle quickly: the tracks vary in length from 10 seconds to six minutes but mostly settle around three or four. So for those worried about committing - and given The Avalanches are the types who actually make an “album”, meant to be heard as a continuous piece of art, not a batch of songs to stand alone across playlists or separate downloads, that does matter - the actual running time is a very manageable 71 minutes, and feels less than that.
More importantly, back to that word, gentleness. Yes, the sounds aren’t all so in-your-face. The sense of no space between tracks to take a breath or shift position that marked Wildflower isn’t there. And for every Music Makes Me High’s high-stepping disco, there are two Reflecting Light’s late-night R&B, and a midpoint cruising groove like Interstellar Love (which features Leon Bridges) or Born To Lose (which samples Bridges’ Bad Bad News)
However, the gentleness is in the attitude underpinning everything, not merely the base rhythm or sonic template. When we’ve never needed it more, The Avalanches are more forgiving and more giving, more accepting and more willing to accommodate. They move you inside and out.