My whole experience with Caribou started live. Back in 2012, when the profile of Dan Snaith’s project rose due to opening for Radiohead, I was one of those who happened to show up to the arena in Newark early looking to secure a good spot for Radiohead and wound up leaving the show a complete Caribou convert. Swim-era Caribou and The King Of Limbs-era Radiohead were brilliant live companions, both idiosyncratic displays of polyrhythmic rushes and ethereal funk. That year, Andorra and Swim were the main soundtrack when I traveled around Spain; Swim, in particular, is a perfect record when you’re walking home late on a balmy summer night in Barcelona. But as obsessed as I became with Snaith’s studio work, my memories of that one live show overshadowed it all. Caribou had been one of the best live sets I’d ever seen, and during Snaith’s DJ detour with Daphni, I awaited another Caribou outing (somewhat) patiently.
Well, luckily enough, after Caribou’s music (specifically, Our Love standout “Can’t Do Without You”) followed me around Reykjavik for a few nights the other week, their set was the highlight of Iceland Airwaves. The fact that I was seeing them again was pretty much the one thing that convinced me to not miss my flight from Reykjavik back to NYC on Thursday.
My one qualm with Our Love is that it sort of feels like it’s somewhere between a Daphni album (i.e., one of Snaith’s DJ sets) and a Caribou album in the form they’d otherwise recently occupied. By which I mean: structurally it feels like Daphni a lot of the time, but drenched in Caribou synths. Because of this, “Silver” is by far my favorite song on the album (also one of my favorites of the year), because it’s, well, more of a song; what I loved about the Swim material was how Snaith blended dance music structures and evocative, emotional songwriting. Anyway, seeing the Our Love material live more or less erases those qualms. Touring as a four piece, Caribou fleshes these songs out into these jams that feel like monoliths built of fragile parts—the trademark Caribou synth sounds are, after all, the sort of thing that feel born of wind and intangible things.
The setlist, which doesn’t vary too much from show to show, is almost perfectly calibrated so that these new songs sit comfortably amongst older favorites. The one two of “Our Love” and “Silver” is a bit of a slow-burn rise to the show, leading up to “Bowls” a few songs in, the sprawling, visceral climax to the first arc of the show. (In between, there was one of the surprises of the show—”Leave House,” one of my favorite tracks off Swim, which makes less frequent appearances in Caribou sets this year.) They bring “Jamelia” in as a spectral meditation mid-set, and after that it feels like the show just builds and builds until it’s over. “Odessa” shows up late set and people lose it, there’s a pseudo-breather with “Your Love Will Set You Free,” and then “Can’t Do Without You” closes the main set. I love seeing a band play a new song and have it garner the sort of reaction “Can’t Do Without You” already does. They play it there at the end of the set, and people treat it like it’s already an old song absolutely beloved by fans. The reaction is probably more intense than even the one to “Odessa.” After that, there’s “Sun,” the single but epic, increasingly multi-parted workout that stands alone in the encore.
The thing that floors me still, after now seeing Caribou a few times, is the weird paradox of the live shows: they’re both more immediate and stranger than the music on records. When they’ve got two drum patterns going on “Bowls,” suddenly the song hits you on a gut level in a more deliberate, inescapable way than occurs on the studio version. But to see this music live in a room like Webster Hall (or, like last week, the Reykjavik Art Museum), is to feel like you’re in some alternate air bubble. Caribou’s music is so floaty, the synth tones so unique and possessing an otherworldly beauty. If you close your eyes for too long or stare at the lights for too long, it’s easy to convince yourself you’re slipping towards some out of body experience, at the same time that the rhythms make you more acutely aware of physical feelings than normal. I guess that’s all pretty fitting, considering the cerebral brand of dance music Snaith makes with Caribou. Either way, after last night a Caribou live set remains one of my favorite live experiences. This time around, I’m just hoping it won’t be another two year wait before the next one.