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The Avalanches' long-awaited new album Wildflower enables musical escapism

The Avalanches' long-awaited new album Wildflower enables musical escapism


It's joyous, sentimental music for dark times

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Since I Left You, the 2000 LP that turned The Avalanches into minor musical legends, is an outlier in almost every respect. It’s a lengthy album, one that stretches out over an hour, but its seamless track-to-track glide makes it easy for the listener to get lost within the larger whole. The hundreds — or is it thousands? — of samples that make it up span the majority of the 20th century, but the finished product isn’t attached to any specific musical time period or scene.

The album is turning 16 years old this November, but the band’s lengthy radio silence following its release has made it feel much older. And in order to describe its formless, playful sound, you need to invoke spaces that teeter on the edge of reality. Listening to it feels like an all-night, on-rails journey through the world’s wackiest club, spending a few minutes in each room before speeding off into some other zone. If you want to escape the drudgery of your day-to-day existence, Since I Left You is still there, the party that never ends.

I never really believed in The Avalanches' comeback

Coming of age as a music fan in the mid-’00s meant looking at The Avalanches the same way you looked at My Bloody Valentine, D’Angelo, and Pavement: they were bands for whom the ship had sailed, phenomena you’d never really be able to experience. And while albums like Loveless, Voodoo, and Slanted and Enchanted blazed wide trails of influence, Since I Left You felt more and more like a bolt from the blue with every passing year. Mashup auteurs like Danger Mouse and Girl Talk came and went, but their link to the band’s artistry and deft touch felt tangential at best. Those other ships returned to harbor one by one with comeback LPs and world tours, but I never had any faith that The Avalanches would join them. The existence of even one album felt plenty miraculous.

I’ve been proven wrong by the release of Wildflower, the band’s second LP and first since 2000. It didn’t come easily: in the decade-plus separating Since I Left You, the band’s remaining members — Robbie Chater, Tony Di Biase, and James De La Cruz — had to grapple with personal health issues, changing relationships, and label drama. (They also had to clear hundreds and hundreds of new samples, a process that necessitates the help of a Los Angeles sample clearance expert people apparently call "the detective.") And yet the product of all that trouble is an album that’s jollier and more exuberant than its predecessor. Wildflower is the most joyous, unabashedly sentimental music this side of Chance the Rapper, and it’s arriving at a time when people can use that kind of joy more than ever. Who could’ve guessed a 16-year wait would end with perfect timing?

Wildflower takes you out into the world

I want to focus on Wildflower’s impressive opening sequence, the chunk of the album that actually improves on Since I Left You instead of replicating its successes with a slightly rosier tone. The older album is stuffed to bursting with hooks, but it’s unconcerned with structure, relying instead on repetition and density. (That’s why its most conventional moments — the title track, "Frontier Psychiatrist," "A Different Feeling" — leave such a large impression.) You’re left thinking about the impressiveness of the collage first and the songcraft second. Across Wildflower’s first seven tracks, the band shifts its focus to melody and form while retaining that feeling of momentum. You still feel like you’re going somewhere, but the expedition is more grand.

The music radiates a sense of wonder

If Since I Left You dragged you through different scenes from a buzzing, blue-lit bash, Wildflower takes you out into the larger world and invites you to feel the sun on your skin. "Because I’m Me" is a confident strut down a crowded New York sidewalk, and "Frankie Sinatra" (an annoying song rendered tolerable by its use as a change of pace here) is an acid-rinsed festival tent. "Subways" yanks you into a cool, subterranean space like Eleanor Friedberger’s "Roosevelt Island," another great song about the underground rhythm of the city; "If I Was a Folkstar" deposits you on a quiet beach at sunset, sitting with the person you love. These songs all feel distinct, but they have the same core — sample-driven filter disco, like Stardust’s "Music Sounds Better With You" made out of junkyard scraps — and they radiate the same sense of wonder. At a time when the world has never felt more volatile or dangerous, this is music that reminds you there’s magic yet to be discovered. It could be waiting just around the corner.

After the folktronica dewdrop of "Colours" wraps up, Wildflower settles down and starts to sound more like Since I Left You 2.0: diffuse, psychedelic disco, with a dozen of tracks blurring together into one dreamy whole. Beatles nostalgia ("The Noisy Eater," complete with a children’s choir singing "Come Together") blends into Beach Boys nostalgia ("Live a Lifetime Love") and loops back again, and Danny Brown shows up every so often to place you back in the present. It’s pleasant, but it’s not all that engaging, and that’s why I keep returning to the album’s stupendous opening run. When it’s firing on all cylinders, Wildflower lets you dive into a kinder, more surprising space than the one we inhabit right now.