Premature Evaluation: The Avalanches Wildflower
Obscurity is great for business. How anybody carves out any level of musical notoriety anymore without glomming onto a Kardashian is beyond me, but once you get there, there’s two ways you can play it. You can opt to never go away, through some combination of constant creative output (Drake, Future, Ty Segall, Mark Kozelek) and tabloid antics (Kanye West, Noel Gallagher, also Mark Kozelek). Taylor Swift has found the ideal balance between those poles — ideal in terms of celebrity saturation maintenance, I mean — and that’s one of many reasons she’s the biggest pop star in the world. Alternately, you can disappear from public life for a while and watch your legend multiply. In the last 12 months we’ve seen Adele and Radiohead benefit from such an approach, and hopefully someday soon Japandroids and Frank Ocean will do the same. Mystique has always been a valuable currency in music, but these days it’s one of the only commodities an artist has left. And there’s no better way to build mystique than by vanishing for years on end.
The Avalanches are here to test the limits of mystique. In 2000, the Melbourne producer collective released their debut album, Since I Left You, a mirage-like collage of 900-plus samples that felt like dancing at a moonlit beach bash on the other side of consciousness. Taking cues from the Dust Brothers and other plunderphonics pioneers, they built a euphoric dreamworld of sound that worked equally well as a party-starter or a relaxing pre-dawn comedown, music that encapsulated the drowsy sensory overload swirl of returning home from a lovely night out only to end up lost on the internet for another two hours. It was a truly remarkable album — because it’s an artistic triumph, yes, but also because nobody sued them for it.
Instrumental music is especially good for conjuring mystique because it feels so inhuman. Even the vocal samples that defined Since I Left You — the ecstatic woman on the title track proclaiming, “Since I left you, I’ve felt the world so new!” or the cartoonish narrator dude on “Frontier Psychiatrist” declaring, “That boy needs therapy!” — seemed like stitches in a larger sonic fabric, the same way re-contextualized pop lyrics on a Girl Talk record function more like mosaic tiles than humans stepping to a microphone. An ecosystem this lush and welcoming doesn’t just happen, but the absence of a distinctly human lead vocal gives the sense that it sprang into existence out of nowhere. Even once you acknowledge that somebody made this, it lends the creator a supernatural quality.
Compounding the album’s inherent allure was the fact that the Avalanches basically vanished not long after it came out. Sure, they performed a handful of live shows and DJ sets and offered intermittent updates on the status of their much-anticipated follow-up LP, but mostly they loomed out of view, leaving the world wondering what they might be up to. This carried on for a decade and a half, during which time Since I Left You’s reputation ballooned in the way only time will allow. The album became not just a word-of-mouth cult favorite but the sole output of reclusive geniuses. The passage of years made the Avalanches holy.
All the while, fans went through that familiar dance of getting their hopes up, waiting interminably, then giving up only to rekindle their hopes when the latest trickle of new information emerged. The expectations for a new album went through the roof. The context flipped and mutated several times over. A zillion eras and trends came and went. The anticipation flatlined into this dull but persistent clamor in a way that maybe only Wrens fans can truly understand anymore, this small but devoted tribe who’ve sworn their allegiance to a classic album and are dangling at the whims of their perfectionist heroes. And now, 16 years after they left us, the Avalanches have finally returned with their sophomore album. It’s time to cash in all that mystique.
See, in order to benefit from it, you eventually have to cash it in. You have to step into the light and show yourself. The potential for disappointment is high; I have to imagine that kind of pressure played into Frank Ocean postponing his album rollout last summer. If you aren’t able to tap into whatever power source generated your previous masterpiece — or some different but equally potent inspiration — you will never live up to the hypothetical triumph your fans have spent years workshopping in their imaginations. And when you’re as not-really-that-famous as these guys, the payoff may not be worth reemerging at all.
So I’m happy to report that Wildflower is good, and I’m sorry to say the Avalanches’ mystique has evaporated almost entirely. Not that core members Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi are even trying to hold on to the intrigue: After launching a mind-numbingly standard 2016 album rollout, complete with high-profile interviews and plentiful advance singles, they meticulously detailed the album’s samples and collaborations for Triple J, taking listeners behind the curtain before most of them could even listen. Furthermore, the litany of guest stars (Danny Brown, Toro Y Moi, Father John Misty, Jennifer Herrema, Jonathan Donahue, Biz Markie, Warren Ellis, et al) makes the album feel less like an unknowable marvel than a really cool beat tape assembled by actual human beings.
Fortunately, it still sounds like the Avalanches — a kaleidoscopic fantasia of found sounds, vaguely tropical yet not rooted in any time or place. Like the group’s highly enjoyable DJ set at Primavera Sound last month, Wildflower proves that the recognizable style they carved out on Since I Left You was no fluke. Despite working with so many disparate parts, the Avalanches have an actual aesthetic. They’re a credit to the concept of curation as art.
Although you typically hope for progression on an artist’s second album, many of the best moments on Wildflower are the ones that could easily slide into Since I Left You. When the beat drops on functional opener “Because I’m Me,” that definitive Avalanches sensation of somehow simultaneously swimming and soaring kicks in, too. “Going Home” scrapes that stratosphere too, as do the banjo-laden interlude “Park Music” and its subsequent “Livin’ Underwater (Is Somethin’ Wild).” And the heavenly disco churn “Subways,” with its soaring strings and “D.A.N.C.E.”-like kiddie chorus and that same Bar-Kays sample from “Gettin Jiggy Wit It,” is the transcontinental jet flume ride we’ve been waiting for all these years.
Actually, the instrumentals are uniformly awesome, creating that aura of patchwork hallucination that made Since I Left You such a totem. Wildflower is too long, but so is Since I Left You; these are albums designed for putting on at an afterparty or drifting into your headspace, and in those contexts, carrying on indefinitely is not really a weakness. To seek a concise statement from the Avalanches is to misunderstand what they do. And if you’re into what they do, there’s ultimately only one factor that might sour Wildflower for you. It’s the album’s main catalyst for change: all those guest vocalists.
Sometimes, as on “Colours,” the effect is glorious. That one masterfully bridges the Avalanches’ oeuvre with a different kind of daydream, the otherworldly chamber pop Jonathan Donahue has spent decades crafting with Mercury Rev. The Toro Y Moi collab “If I Was A Folkstar” and Herrema’s turn on “Stepkids” work wonderfully according to the same parameters.
The problem, mostly, is the rap segments, which often feel like Gorillaz at their most corny. “Frankie Sinatra” is a jam — just ask my wife, I haven’t been able to stop singing “I’m Frankie Sinatra!” for weeks — and both Danny Brown and MF Doom bring their A game. But if Avalanches songs often feel unmoored from time, this one just seems outdated. Ditto Biz Markie’s appearance on “The Noisy Eater.” And even though Camp Lo’s verses on the brassy, celebratory “Because I’m Me” feel like a contagious Jay Z victory lap, I’m ambivalent about how that fits into the context of an Avalanches album.
One comparison keeps springing to mind. DJ Shadow, who also made his name converting samples into the stuff of dreams, spent six years following up his landmark 1996 debut Endtroducing… When he finally returned with The Private Press in 2002, it was clearly the work of the same guy, but he seemed mortal this time. Like Since I Left You, Endtroducing… was practically haunted with mystique. The journey from the dusty stacks on the album cover to “Organ Donor” and “Midnight In A Perfect World” seemed to involve magic, whereas it was easy to imagine The Private Press being concocted in a recording studio. It’s a good album, but it’s just an album, not a gift from God.
The difference between DJ Shadow and the Avalanches is that Shadow specialized in dark, serious head-trip music and the Avalanches are fun as hell. A buoyant spirit and constant blasts of color render their albums supremely easy to enjoy in all kinds of contexts. Even in their most reflective moments, they seem constitutionally incapable of steering you into a dirge, and if you don’t like where they’re heading, a pivot is right around the corner. In terms of pure jubilation, this album has few rivals in 2016. For that reason alone, Wildflower is a winner. The mystery is gone, but the joy remains.
Wildflower is out 7/8 via Astralwerks. Stream it below.