Life, death, and the cosmos set the boundaries of the Avalanches’ ambitious third album, We Will Always Love You. The record begins with a farewell voicemail—a final communication, we are led to believe, from a young woman who has passed away—and it ends with the Morse code-like bleeping of the Arecibo Message, an interstellar transmission carrying information on the human species into the infinite beyond. In between those poles, the Australian group continues doing what it has always done: spinning the sounds of disco, soul, easy listening, and other nostalgic staples into luminous, ludic shapes, turning musical collage into a sparkling, four-dimensional fantasyland.
The Avalanches are no longer the same group they were when they made their triumphant debut, 2000’s Since I Left You, folding samples from thousands of songs into a flickering, zoetrope-like illusion that netted comparisons to De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. By 2006, with no follow-up in sight and their works-in-progress folder filled with abandoned drafts, founding member Darren Seltmann had left the band. On their sophomore album, 16 long years after their debut, they squeezed a subway car’s worth of guests onto a record already crowded with samples: among them, Danny Brown, Biz Markie, Toro y Moi, David Berman, and members of Tame Impala, Mercury Rev, and Royal Trux. On the new album, the Avalanches technically remain a duo, though Midnight Juggernauts’ Andy Szekeres has co-writing credits on every song, and the guest list is just as extensive as last time. Yet for all those changes, they sound remarkably like their youthful selves.
Whether sampling or playing their own instruments, they favor rich tone colors and ultra-vivid timbres; the high end is awash in chimes, glockenspiel, and children’s choirs. Glance at the sample credits and you may read names like the Roches and the Carpenters and Vashti Bunyan; close your eyes and what you’ll see behind closed lids are rainbows and Day-Glo, fireflies and flax—all opalescent everything, inside and out. They’re not especially mysterious samplers; often, they make no effort to hide their source material at all. “Interstellar Love” is built around a snippet of Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky,” an inspiration so obvious it scans practically as self-parody. Yet they manage to use it in such a way that it merely colors guest vocalist Leon Bridges’ own melodies, rather than upstaging him. Few contemporary artists are so adept at wringing such potent aura from a recognizable sample, rather than simply crowbarring it into a cheap eureka moment. They’re expert manipulators of the tension between nostalgia and déjà vu, playing recognizable refrains off bits of songs you feel like you know, even if you’ve never heard them before. It is, perhaps, the opposite of a project like the Caretaker, whose soupy ambience is meant to simulate the effects of dementia: In the Avalanches’ music, every sound feels like a treasured memory.
On paper, the list of contributors might be even more eclectic than last time. Blood Orange raps and sings on one song, and MGMT square off against Johnny Marr on another. Tricky turns up a couple of times, muttering so quietly you have to lean in to hear him. Mick Jones, of the Clash and Big Audio Dynamite, duets with a cheerful-sounding Los Angeles singer named Cola Boyy on the boisterous “We Go On,” then pops up in the background of the Jamie xx-produced “Wherever You Go,” playing dubby piano behind Neneh Cherry and the Australian singer CLYPSO. There are rappers (Denzel Curry, Pink Siifu, Sampa the Great) and ranters (Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell, shouting, “Love is our song!”); in “Gold Sky,” Kurt Vile stays grounded, delivering low-key existentialist spoken-word, while the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne makes for the heavens (“Oh golden sky/A way up high/It’s where soldiers go/When they have died”). But for the most part, all these characters stay folded into the mix, even when their own personalities shine brightly through.
Occasionally, the group highlights the album’s cosmic, life-after-death themes with a well-placed sample or guest turn. In “Solitary Ceremonies,” a woman recounts communicating with the spirit of Franz Liszt (“He used to do so by guiding my hands over the pianoforte keyboard”) while falsetto harmonies glow in the background. “Wherever You Go” opens with a spoken-word snippet from NASA’s Golden Record, a recording carried aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft in 1977: “We step out of our solar system into the universe, seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we’re called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate.” The album’s most remarkable invocation of the supernatural is hidden in plain sight: “Star Song.IMG,” a 10-second blast of white noise which, when fed into a spectrograph—a program that turns audio waveforms into visual forms—yields a portrait of the Hollywood actor Barbara Payton, whose addictions led to her death from heart and liver failure at just 39. The album’s second song is also dedicated to her; she hovers over the whole project as a kind of tragic patron saint—a nod, perhaps, to Chater’s own struggle with addiction.
By any metric, it’s a lot—such a surfeit of ideas, participants, and sheer stimuli that it feels at points almost absurd. The lyrics sometimes feel like they could use an edit—Neneh Cherry rhymes “agitated” and “celebrated” with “constipated”—and some of the light-and-love philosophizing occasionally verges on hokeyness. But even though the album’s 71 minutes might be 10 or 15 too many, the short track lengths and seamless segues between songs and interludes tend to keep things moving briskly along. The most affecting moments often happen in bridges and outros and other fleeting, marginal moments when an unexpected chord change triggers a palpable jolt of joy. A few of the best songs could be mistaken for outtakes from their debut; if you could bottle a certain frequency of late-summer sunshine, it would probably resemble “Born to Lose,” which flips a snippet of Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” and a hard-to-spot Leon Bridges sample into the kind of weightless filter-disco perfection that made Since I Left You sound so effortless.
Most importantly, We Will Always Love You overflows with heart, enough that it buoys even the top-heavy moments, and the bittersweet mix of emotions feels remarkably appropriate for the current moment. Pink Siifu nails it when he reworks a melancholy couplet from the Silver Jews’ late David Berman into a line about cosmic perseverance: “I sleep three feet above the street in a pink champagne Corvette/Fly out into space, listen to the music the stars are making/Without a flicker of regret.” It’s a record that takes psychedelia not so much as a means of escape as a pledge of faith: that a stranger, better tomorrow is possible for all of us.
The interstellar message that closes the album, transmitting human DNA and earthly biochemicals in binary code, was originally broadcast from Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory in 1974, beamed out at a frequency of 2380 MHz; following a performance with the SETI-related International Space Orchestra, the Avalanches solicited a copy of the transmission directly from Frank Drake, the nonagenarian astronomer who wrote the missive with assistance from Carl Sagan. Last month, the National Science Foundation announced that after more than a half-century of service, the Arecibo Telescope had become structurally unsound and was to be withdrawn from service. Then, on December 1, cables supporting a 900-ton structure suspended above the telescope snapped, smashing the dish below. Knowing the fate of this once glittering icon of space exploration somehow makes the album’s closing gambit all the more poignant. The telescope may be destroyed, but the message is still out there, sailing past star after star, a message of hope from a crumbling world.
Buy: Rough Trade
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