The Avalanches – Wildflower (Album Review)

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The Avalanches make a triumphant return to music with their first release in 16 years.

If Since I Left You was the calm before the storm, Wildflower serves to show that, at some point in the last 16 years, the forecast changed – the rainclouds have dissipated, the sun is shining, and the air feels as fresh and summery as ever. If Since I Left You was the chaotically dense and gorgeous soundtrack to the bittersweet life of a miner who survived against all odds, Wildflower is the continued score to the dance routine that a forgotten haughty miner and his dance-troupe of beautiful women have endlessly performed in an impossibly blissful afterlife.

If Since I Left You was Dorothy’s house spiralling away from a drab sepia reality in a tornado, Wildflower is the moment she stepped out into the lush colour spectrum of a 60’s fantasy – into a world that feels grounded within, yet completely unlike her own.

The Avalanches‘ lasting impact on music is indebted to their ability to recreate these feelings – to compose incredible music that both engrosses us in a patchwork of perfect and distances us from a reality that seems cruelly shortsighted and limited in comparison. Since I Left You has held up remarkably well for it’s time, continuing to subsist as a musical landmark and impressive achievement for the Australian plunderphonics crew, thanks to the magic and allure behind Robbie Charter and Tony Di Blasi‘s densely layered soundscapes and timelessly nostalgic multi-era fused grooves.

It’s a hard task to exceed or live up to a spectacular debut effort, one that has plagued many careers in not just music, but all forms of expressional art. It’s also made infinitely harder when you leave a devoted following of ravenous fans to wait for years before following that first milestone (looking at you, Frank Ocean). But to meet the expectations of millions 16 years after releasing a universally-acclaimed classic? Impossible.

I’m sure that, at least on some level, the crux of the mixed reception of Wildflower is founded on the base of those staggering suppositions of greatness; some will find that the album wasn’t what they expected, that it isn’t “Since I Left You 2.0“, or that they were simply left wanting more from the group’s return.

Wildflower is a revelry of the ignorance towards these expectations – it’s an album that not only manipulates, revitalises and reimagines a lot of the elements of its predecessor, it disregards a lot of them too. The notion of hip-hop influenced beats, set to dirty drum breaks behind multitudes of sounds and instruments stripped from years of different genres of music, is reinterpreted in that it is reversed. The album brings on emcees including Danny BrownBiz MarkieCamp Lo and mysterious enigma MF DOOM to spit (or in Biz Markie’s case, chew and swallow) traditional verses over lush, psychedelic compositions that are often ethereal, carnivalesque, and ultimately fun. Lead single Frankie Sinatra is a thumping electro-swing mesh of hip-hop and calypso that sounds like a party in a burning circus tent – one that divided listeners by letting us know: this is going to be different.

The album doesn’t replicate the ‘evolving collage‘ nature of it’s predecessor – instead, it feels more like flipping through the pages of a faded photo album; one filled with pictures of sun-drenched highways, sparkling beaches and soaring blue skies, and memories of gleeful passiveness with a touch of misfit tendencies. It’s the implicit story of The Avalanches, one of endless musical obsession, setbacks, shit-stirring and good times, but it’s also an album that invites us to find our own nostalgia within its hour of ambitious euphoria.

Despite all this, Wildflower is not a concept album – its simply the rich, tapestry-like genre of plunderphonics at its absolute best.

When the first triumphant horns swell and explode out of a filtered groove to introduce the album on Because I’m Me, which is easily the grandest opener of the year, it feels almost as if they never really did leave us. Classic Avalanches grooves – audio braids twisted from myriads of different songs and sounds, set to danceable drum breaks and thick basslines – can be found within many cuts from the album, including the stellar Subways and the incredible If I Was a Folkstar, a track about a faraway love which features some ethereal Toro Y Moi vocals over a pulsating, hypnotic melody.

While the songs here are certainly less spontaneous and multi-faceted than those on Since I Left You, tracks like Harmony that oscillate between different elements every 16-bars, show that Charter and Di Blasi still have the ability to craft songs that feel less like an individual track, and more like five different songs seamlessly clashed into four minutes.

The Avalanches can still masterfully execute decade-old ideas and make them sound fresh without leaving behind any of the notable aspects that made them so memorable in the first place. The oft-obscure samples dug out of record store crates from God-knows-where are as textured, warm and impeccably layered as ever. The genre-blending tunes still glow with a certain vibrance and liveliness; twangy guitars, flourishing synths, skittish flutes and octave-gliding, dreamy vocal samples still flutter around the mix like balloons being loosed into the breeze.

The music is also playful, and often embraces it’s goofiness, particularly on The Noisy Eater, a track that has the legendary “Clown Prince of Hip Hop” Biz Markie literally chomping noisily over a mess of off-kilter samples, including a snippet of a Beatles choir interpolation that Yoko Ono & Paul McCartney apparently approved themselves. The bizarre result is just another example of The Avalanches‘ rejection of listener expectation, in favour of something comical and fun that is both sloppy and meticulously perfected.

As the final track Saturday Night Inside Out begins to close the album, it feels more like a satisfied drive-off-into-the-sunset than a burning Darth Vader, Ewok boogie-esque celebration of the last 16 years materialised. Father John Misty‘s wailing back-up vocals are simply integrated into the track as indifferently as any standard instrument in The Avalanches music, behind some bittersweet spoken word poetry from David Berman, that imagines ‘the one who got away‘ as ‘a fulfilled 10th grade prophecy’. In a way, the poetry is the appropriate blend of sombre and reminiscent to end an album this long in the making – it correlates with the detachment and distance that many have felt since The Avalanches left us, and reminds us that everything is alright in the end.

Wildflower is the amalgamation of a future that didn’t grow darker or brighter; it simply remained beautiful, but in different ways. No, it’s not Since I Left You, and that’s a good thing. It challenges everything we expected after more than a decade of radio-silence, and even in the face of daunting hype, delivers something that the fans will love without feeding into giving us exactly what we wanted.

Only time will tell how Wildflower holds up to its predecessor. Maybe by the time the next Avalanches album releases, we can still reflect on it as happily as we do Since I Left You.

Let’s hope that moment isn’t another 16 years away.

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