Album Review: The Avalanches – Wildflower (2016)

This is an astonishing record.

A story is secreted among its dayglo pop detritus: girl ditches home, meets wannabe folkstar (who does shit his way) and somewhere around “Colours” they eat tabs or fuck or both. You can practically hear the lysergic acid splash against Wildflower‘s prefrontal cortex.

But writing about it is risky. Why add to the gushing hyperbole and lazy research that dogs reportage of Wildflower and its authors? Countless publications have rushed out first-listen reviews, but this Magic-Eye picture doesn’t manifest quickly. It doesn’t instantly gratify. Wildflower is an intense, overwhelming information dump from contemporary music’s most masterful aural impressionists, and they know better than anyone that it’s okay to take one’s time.

It’s not the record we expected, yet it’s exactly what was promised. In 2001, producer Robbie Chater outlined his MO as “good pop songs, but fucked up ones… using samples,” and that’s as concise a summation of the wiley, paisley-soaked single “Colours” as is possible. But Wildflower starts on more familiar turf. “Because I’m Me” delivers patented Avalanche-brand euphoria precisely of the kind rhapsodic fans hoped for. An exuberant voice is plucked from limbo and swaddled in soaring strings and funky horns. The production is meticulous, though rawer than before – samples here are sizeable chunks employed as hooks, in the tradition of modern hip-hop touchstones like Dilla‘s Donuts and Edan‘s Beauty And The Beat. “Subways” and its superior coda, “Going Home”, reprise the filtered French touch of “Radio” and “A Different Feeling” but next to those forbearers sound blatant and crude, albeit peppered just-so with the half-heard conversations and snatches of atmospheric found-sound that mark them as unmistakably The Avalanches.

On “If I was A Folkstar”, Chater’s unbridled artistry and imagination (and those of right-hand man Tony Di Blasi) are at last laid bare, as tiny slivers of jazz guitar, piano, and a half-dozen unidentifiable tones are linked monkey-grip into a gently pulsing, hypnotic new whole that previously didn’t exist. Toro Y Moi‘s perfect, airy melody is just cream. He, Jonti and Jonathon Donahue (of Mercury Rev) are The Avalanches’ surrogate Wilson brothers, and here they croon alongside surreptitious samples of the actual Beach Boys.

Wildflower is its own soundtrack – the cassettes rendered woozy and warped by dashboard sun and chewed by a shitty player mechanism, blasted by runaway misfits as their stolen ride zooms through summer. I won’t launch too far into theoretical plots, metaphors and meanings, because The Avalanches don’t write concept records and this isn’t prog-rock fanfic. Nonetheless, Wildflower exhibits a more explicit narrative than does its sixteen-year old sibling. After sex, its protagonists come down as the sun comes up. They chow down on Cheerios with Biz Markie while Paul Tanner‘s ghost materialises nearby. It’s ridiculous, goofy fun. Nicely blazed and back on the road, everything’s perfect again for “Harmony”, the purest distillation yet of the nostalgic, timeless, Sesame Street-on-pingers side of The Avalanches.

But chief among criticisms lobbed by this group’s detractors, is that it knows only sunshine and lollipops; that its positive vibes are inevitably hollow, meaningless simulacra of actual happiness. There are two immediate rebuttals to the argument: One, fuck you and your need for cynicism and darkness – it’s not like you won’t find it elsewhere in the record store; and two, you’re not listening hard enough. Like Since I Left You before it, Wildflower will be misunderstood by many. It’s a tragic document of broken homes and hearts and dreams and lives. Its characters might be free-spirited, harmless rascals but they’re hardly innocent – they’re huffing paint and breaking shit and driving drunk, and the county fuzz (incidentally, also the name of an obscure sixties act sampled herein) is in hot pursuit.

By the time Danny Brown bids farewell on loping showstopper “The Wozard of Iz”, reality too is catching up with Wildflower. She’s heartbroken and alone on “Sunshine”, an emotional tipping point heightened by irresistible Motown bass and an approaching summer storm. For all the heart-on-sleeve sincerity The Avalanches fervently champion, there’s piercing irony in the sampled vocal that floats into “Light Up” proclaiming, “It’s a world of fantasy.” The perfect love, a life carefree, existence sans responsibility… they are, ultimately unattainable.

Those first-kiss thrills are relegated to dreams as adolescence slips away. And so begins “Kaleidoscopic Lovers”, The Avalanches at their balls-out trippy best. Simultaneously real and intangible – like any lucid dream – its borders are ill-defined, even with Donahue‘s guiding description of couples humping until they melt into goopey orgasmic wholes, their constituent parts no longer discernable – much like the song itself. After forty-five minutes of relatively less abstract (though impeccably executed and decidedly psychedelic) sampling, this burbling cornucopia of bizarre, disparate noises reconfigured into something entirely new and unlike anything else is a reminder of how fascinating The Avalanches’ methodology was on Since I Left You.

But it’s never been about technique. Both records are about music. Listeners betrayed by featured vocalists, rappers or live instrumentation (singing saws and accordions, no less) must not be familiar with The Avalanches’ larger canon, for Wildflower’s final movement is pleasingly reminiscent of the group’s exquisite remixes for acts like Badly Drawn Boy, The Concretes and Manic Street Preachers. On “Stepkids” Jennifer Herrema embodies the ageing, burnt-out shell of the girl who once sang “Subways”, sat now in grotty clothes with a busted guitar by a barrel fire. Meanwhile, David Berman articulates the regret of whoever left her by the lake back in “Livin’ Underwater”, now in lonely twilight years, still wondering why he let that tenth-grade prophecy go.

At least, that’s what I hear, between the hand-stitches of Wildflower‘s patchwork pastoral guitars, flute flutters and forgotten vocal groups. The album profoundly alters our conversation with The Avalanches by shattering the long-held ‘disappearance’ mythology and offering a second prism through which to frame the group’s body of work. Decade-old ideas about what they ‘are’ or ‘do’ don’t necessarily fit this new context. Wildflower exists on its own terms. Of course, the most celebrated figures in popular music history are often the ones that readily challenge expectations.

It’s possible that Wildflower’s lustre will fade faster than its predecessor’s simply because, despite ambitions to transcend reality, it and its characters remain rooted in that very reality. The time and place are clear enough: it’s late sixties / early seventies United States of America. Its disaffection, poverty, fear, frustration, and desire for something real and meaningful and ‘other’ are palpable, and importantly, relatable. By contrast, Since I Left You still sounds like something beamed into our world from an unknowable alternative dimension, unshackled to piddling concepts of space, physics, and time.

And time is indeed the most volatile and unpredictable element whenever The Avalanches are concerned, but only it will tell how Wildflower resonates a month, a year, a decade from now. Until then, listen. Enjoy. This is an astonishing record.

Review Score: 9.2 out of 10. AU-APPROVED

Wildflower is out now.