Caribou had already taken many forms. First working under the name Manitoba before adopting a new moniker in the mid-’00s, Dan Snaith had already tried his hand at bleary IDM and ’60s-indebted psych-rock; he had taken strands from shoegaze and krautrock. Having unexpectedly kicked off a solid music career at the same time he completed a PhD in pure math, you could always sense that Snaith was an abstract numbers man in his work — he had an eye for patterns, a mind for exploring theories, an ear for combining things in new orders to discover an unforeseen destination.
For the first decade of his career, he made albums that played with structures, rearranging them and resulting in transfixing sounds. But then he stumbled upon something entirely new with Swim. When he released that album, 10 years ago yesterday, Caribou didn’t just take on a new form once more. It transcended.
Though Caribou itself was always malleable, Snaith’s arc had already begun to approach a more discrete shape, moving in a specifically upwards trajectory. Immediately before Swim came the retro psychedelia and krautrock of Andorra in 2007, which was acclaimed in its own right and earned Snaith a Polaris Prize. While he’d always been respected — with 2003’s Up In Flames, originally billed as Manitoba’s sophomore album, particularly lingering as a fan favorite — Andorra worked as a prologue to a new chapter that Swim would kick off in full.
Where Andorra was organic, all sun-dappled textures and burnt desert air and blinding sky, Swim was an inversion in almost every way. Snaith responded to his greatest success by undergoing the greatest upheaval of his aesthetic and approach. There had long been electronic ventures within Snaith’s catalog, but Swim embraced house and techno in a way that drew a line in the sand between one era of Caribou and the next.
“I got excited by the idea of making dance music that’s liquid in the way it flows back and forth,” Snaith explained at the time. “Dance music that sounds like it’s made out of water, rather than made out of metallic stuff like most dance music does.” At the same time, he’d been inspired by his newfound love of swimming. And, sure enough, it’d be hard to think of a more appropriate title for the album than Swim. Everything about the album feels aqueous, whether in Snaith’s attempt to approximate natural rhythms, or in the way it often plays like an album wandering through the murkiest, most enigmatic corners of a person’s mind and emotions.
Though genre and era borders were blurred with Caribou albums, and the identity of the project could shift substantially between those albums, there were always throughlines. Everything Snaith released could, in some form or another, be considered psychedelic. Andorra had taken that as far as it could go in terms of pre-established historical signifiers. Swim took that ethos and ran within it into stranger territory.
From the cover onwards, it promised, and delivered, a kaleidoscopic journey to some deep interior space. That’s not a foreign concept in electronic music, but Snaith had just made his most accessible, indie-adjacent album, and it had changed his career. In response he abandoned much of what had left Caribou poised for wider recognition. And then, in the end, Caribou got way bigger than anyone, including Snaith, expected.
Part of that might’ve had to do with “Odessa.” The burbling, yelping single and opening track was an ideal intro to the new territory of Swim. It had the warm yet shadowy synth textures, the moody tone that pervaded Swim, but in its own alternate reality was the poppier entrypoint to an album that didn’t necessarily reveal itself on first listen. Synced in several commercials and inescapable at college parties, it was one of a new era of indie-level hits — the stuff that was made ubiquitous through placement on countless retail chain playlists but never actually crossed over to the mainstream.
Still, “Odessa” is only catchy in weird, idiosyncratic ways — Snaith spends most of the song murmuring above a clanging, clattering beat, the recurring hook like a more garbled version of, say, the wordless chorus that would make M83’s “Midnight City” one of the millennial generation’s anthems the following year. Dan Snaith was always operating on his own wavelength, and that was never truer than on Swim, despite the greater notoriety it and “Odessa” would bring him, and despite other gloomily infectious moments like “Leave House.” Even there, once you listened to Swim in its entirety, it was clear just how adept Snaith was not only at sculpting all these glistening and precise sounds but at building a cohesive world to put them in.
Swim is one of those albums that rewards experiencing it in full. Snaith strikes a precarious balance. There are long stretches or entire songs that are totally or predominantly instrumental, like the slow-building intro of “Hannibal” or the propulsive “Bowls” or “Sun,” which flashes like dying lights at dusk while Snaith’s disembodied voice repeats the title phrase over and over. There is, fittingly, a fluid quality to Swim — as it pulls you through these different passages, it’s punctuated by moments of impeccable songwriting in a more traditional sense. The aforementioned catchiness of “Odessa” and “Leave House” is matched in “Found Out”; it also has a panged ballad in “Kaili” that gets blown out into an amorphous haze, echoing the feeling of being paralyzed in a moment of suffering or loss.
All of it flows seamlessly together, something you could almost mistake for one long piece — and, yes, all of it sounds like water. That static in “Kaili” sounds like a night where you’re caught in a constant, blinding rain — not a storm, but when the air seems to be full of liquid going in no particular direction and not even offering the resolution of leaving its mark on you. The pitter-patter of “Bowls” conjures the image of droplets splashing onto ancient shrines. All manner of sounds on the album — from the simmering “Hannibal” to the cascading drama of “Sun” and “Jamelia” — function like the club reimagined on some spiritual plane, strobes as viewed from behind a multicolor waterfall.
But there is something else important about Swim, too, something that perhaps marked an even more significant change for Caribou. In the past, Snaith didn’t exactly know what to write about; and as a result, he usually concocted some kind of fictions. On Swim, he was drawing from his own life in a more substantial way than ever before, writing about not only himself but the loss and experiences those close to him were going through. Not to diminish his earlier albums, but there’s something in that pivot that makes Snaith’s previous work, in hindsight, feel even more like a series of exercises. He came into his own anew on Swim, and people who responded to the album strongly must have, on some level, sensed that.
Not that you could always pinpoint what exactly was being said on Swim. Snaith moves through these songs like a ghost, becoming tangible in only a handful of moments. So you could find catharsis dancing to songs like “Odessa” and “Bowls” once Caribou brought Swim to life onstage, but you could also experience the album as a conduit between euphoria and melancholia. When it overflowed, it was vibrant, mind-altering. But through much of it, you could feel grief and longing and isolation as well.
Once more, Snaith was tapping into a whole array of classically codified themes — the headier ends of electronic music, a dance between solitude and losing yourself on your way to a new beginning. But in whatever suggested way Snaith’s own life was channeled through that, it made Swim feel more real. In taking it as one man’s dreamscape of friends and family and chapters of life, you could use it as your own too, filling it with your own references lit up and clarified within the otherworldliness of Snaith’s music.
At the time, Swim appeared to be just another reinvention, albeit a more holistic one. But now, in a sense, it was the actual beginning of Caribou. Since then, Snaith has released music via his more DJ-oriented alter ego Daphni, which then entered into a kind of symbiosis with Caribou. Swim’s successor, 2014’s Our Love, leaned further into dance structures, and when Snaith finally returned with Suddenly earlier this year, it was once more a new take on the electronic side of his songwriting. But even now, there are consistencies — the form and textures might still shift, but Snaith located something at the core of himself. Abandoning the nostalgia or restlessness of his older work, he’s entered into a stretch where, when he reemerges, you can count on him for electronic-oriented albums that are strikingly crafted, and bear the emotional weight of one man navigating the nuances of family life and aging.
Just as each Caribou album is unique in its own way, even this more unified stretch of Snaith’s career could draw you in to one part or another for different reasons. But there’s still something enigmatic, almost mystical, about the rebirth of Swim. Dan Snaith waded into waters literal and figurative, and reemerged with a clearer sense of who he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to do. He took the man-made technology that had always soundtracked his life and used it to create music that doesn’t just sound of the earth, but of some ancient version of nature we could never quite touch.
Yet at the same time, it was when Caribou left the past behind and crafted an idea of the future. A decade later, Snaith has only continued to follow his muse to new places. He’s continued to weave those ideas of the past and the future, the personal and human with the imagined and transporting. But along the way he left us Swim, an album that’s still every bit as absorbing and mysterious and shape-shifting as when it first appeared — an album that, each time you try and dive deeper within it, still offers transformation.