Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Caribou Suddenly

Dan Snaith still hasn’t quite learned how to sit still. “If you want to change it, you must break it/ Rip it up and something new will grow,” he sings on “Sister,” the opening track from his new album Suddenly. For the first half of his career, that’s exactly how he continually reinvented himself. After emerging in the wake of the ’90s IDM boom with 2001’s bloopy Start Breaking My Heart, the producer gleefully launched himself into a new genre with every release — weirdo psychedelia on 2003’s Up In Flames, krautrock on 2005’s The Milk Of Human Kindness, ’60s pop on 2007’s Andorra, and nocturnal club music on his 2010 breakout Swim, deconstructing them all and remaking them in his own image.

But in the second decade of the millennium, Snaith’s modus operandi changed. He seemed to settle down, both musically and personally. Instead of looking outwards for new inspiration, he dug deeper into himself. Snaith’s 2014 album Our Love, his first since the birth of his first daughter, was fashioned from the same basic building blocks as Swim: deep house rhythms, humid synth flourishes, Snaith’s reedy falsetto. The difference was more thematic, a shift towards the personal — a pointed, high concept yet deeply felt examination of love in all its forms.

Snaith’s latest album under the umbrella of his Caribou moniker continues that trend. Songs like “Home” and “Sunny’s Time” introduce hip-hop influences, and sampled vocals are newly prominent throughout — even “Sister,” the spare synth-lullaby that opens the album, contains a blink-and-you-miss it recording of Snaith’s mother singing a nursery rhyme to his sister. Despite those tweaks, Caribou’s palette has mostly stayed the same on Suddenly. He’s once again using the same brush to paint a wholly new picture, a deep dive into turmoil and tragedy that, like Our Love once was before it, is his most personal album to date — and perhaps his strangest and most singular.

Despite its title, Suddenly wasn’t exactly sudden. It’s been over five years since Our Love, the longest gap between Caribou albums yet. As John Lennon famously once said, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other Caribou albums, and Snaith has sure packed a lot of life into the past five years. His family has grown, shrunk and undergone significant duress: his youngest daughter was born in the back of a car on the way to the hospital; his brother-in-law died suddenly of a heart attack; his sister-in-law went through a difficult divorce; his father had a health crisis.

These are the kinds of massive world-shaking events that can completely alter the trajectory of your life. And the songs on Suddenly all undergo similar changes; while Snaith used to shapeshift with every new album, here he can’t even wait a full track. “Sunny’s Time” stitches a hushed Satie-esque ballad together with a brash hip-hop sample. A minute before it ends, “Lime” becomes an entirely different song, its jazzy hip-pop fading into a droning spectral chant. “Magpie” unfolds like a half-remembered McCartney ballad that abruptly shoots off into space. Even “Cloud Song,” the vaporous synth-arpeggio lullaby that closes out the album, climaxes with an unexpectedly fiery guitar solo from collaborator Colin Fisher. That sense of rupture — of sudden change and surprise, of being buffeted about by the whims of fate and learning to make do — is what defines the album.

The throughline, then, is Snaith’s voice. He sings on every track besides the brief interlude “Filtered Grand Piano,” and although his voice is often treated as just one more sample to chop up and warp, it’s pushed higher in the mix than ever before. As Snaith himself is the first to admit, he isn’t exactly a strong singer — his falsetto is a fragile wisp of a thing, floating above his shifting beatscapes instead of dominating them. But his voice is also one of his greatest assets, the beating heart at the center of all the samples and synths, a remarkable instrument capable of injecting real pathos into a simple mantra like “And you never come back.” It’s deeply human and imperfect, which makes it the perfect vessel to explore the ripple effects of circumstances beyond our control.

While Our Love packaged its tender examination of the trials and compromises of long-term partnership into maximalist dancefloor-oriented pop, Suddenly is more interested in touching your heart than moving your feet. Understandably, given its subject matter, an overwhelming sense of loss permeates the whole album. If you didn’t know that Snaith was happily married, you might even think it was a breakup album. “Now you’re gone/ And I’m just left here waiting,” he sings on “You And I.” “Now you’re gone for good/ Been through more than anyone should/ And in time you’ll see/ How much better off you’ll be,” “New Jade” begins. And then there’s “Magpie”: “It’s been five years since you’ve been gone and now/ Oh how the time has passed me by.”

Even so, it’s not exactly a heavy or taxing listen. Snaith’s saddest songs are so pretty and sometimes even euphoric, his voice so warm, that they soothe rather than wallow. And indeed, that’s the point. “You And I” was written for Snaith’s wife’s mother, from her perspective, mourning the loss of her son. “New Jade” is an affirmation to his wife’s sister in the wake of an explosive divorce. And “Magpie” is a touching tribute to his longtime sound engineer Julia Brightly, who passed away shortly before the release of Our Love (and who also served as the namesake of an instrumental track on that LP). These songs are deeply felt and inseparable from their circumstances, a way for Snaith to take life’s most painful curveballs and turn them into something beautiful for his loved ones — and us.

Despite his penchant for genre exploration, Caribou is a remarkably consistent artist. Every album since at least Andorra has a legitimate claim to the title of “best Caribou album,” and Suddenly is no different. But what separates Suddenly from the pack is the way it perfectly synthesizes the two halves of Caribou: Dan Snaith the crate-digging experimentalist with a PhD in mathematics and Dan Snaith the emotional singer-songwriter trying to work through the human experience. Some of Snaith’s earlier work, impressive as it was, could feel like an academic exercise from a rigorous analytical mind. The songs of Suddenly are just as much a product of a restless musical omnivore leaping from one reference point to the next, but that restlessness is a reflection of actual life lived. Form follows content, and content follows form.

Snaith operates a bit like a magpie himself, finding shiny trinkets from all across the musical landscape — or his record collection — and bringing them together to create a comforting new nest to live inside. And on Suddenly, he unites different strains and different decades of pop and electronic and hip-hop music all for the sole purpose of making you feel. Bangers like “Ravi” and the classic house-leaning “Never Come Back” aside, Suddenly is an insular, inward-focused work, but it might also be his most varied. So yes, two decades into his career, Caribou is still moving — despite everything life has thrown at him, and because of everything life has thrown at him. Life doesn’t sit still, so why should his music?

Suddenly is out 2/28 via Merge. Pre-order it here.

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