Every weekday, the Talkhouse runs one piece by one musician, about one album. That’s about 250 pieces a year, and we still didn’t get to all the best that 2014 had to offer. So we asked some of our favorite Talkhouse writers to share their thoughts about a few of the more notable albums from last year.
— Michael Azerrad, Talkhouse editor-in-chief
Now that all’s said and done for 2014, I can pretty confidently assert that the album that grabbed me and affected me over all the others is the new one from a guy called Dan Snaith. Despite sounding like a villain from Hogwarts, Snaith has delivered his fourth (sixth?) album under the Caribou name to impressive acclaim, particularly from the indie world.
When I first heard the lead single “Can’t Do Without You” I was pretty un-enamoured. But I just knew I was missing something — my friends and colleagues were freaking out about it, particularly my bandmate Martin, who is usually a very good barometer when it comes to new music. I admit, I just didn’t get it. It sounded to me like a pretty generic remix of someone else’s song. But I kept periodically trying it out to see if it clicked. Eventually it did, one day when I was prepping some new material for a DJ set, and then it really clicked — as did my mouse on the preorder button for the album. I recall Martin’s super-smug “I FUCKING TOLD YOU SO” when he heard me singing the refrain from the song in an airline lounge one morning. Fair enough. In hindsight, I have no idea what I’d been thinking.
I must confess that my first encounter with the full album was a little bit shameful and naughty. Since I had fallen in love so hard with the single, the wait for the album seemed like forever. And if there’s one thing I have learned about myself so far, it’s that I am terrible at waiting for stuff. It’s not a great trait, I know, but if I like something really bad, I need to have it now. And so when Our Love leaked, months before the album’s release date in October, it just so happened to leak onto my hard drive.
I am not proud of this.
But in my defence, I did buy the album digitally and on vinyl, so maybe it all comes out in the karmic washing machine? Anyway, I excitedly loaded my illicit treasure onto my phone for a transatlantic flight back from New York and settled down with a glass of wine or two in hand to soak in the music. Little did I know, the dodgy rip of the album that I had stumbled across had the track listing in alphabetical order, which of course made nonsense of the hours that Snaith had no doubt poured into the sequencing of his tracks for optimal impact. But such was the strength of the music that it did little to lessen the impact it had on me. In a way I’m glad that I was on a flight in my own little cocoon for six hours because, given my bordering-on-ADHD attention span, I would no doubt have spent the 42 minutes of the duration of Our Love texting my friends excitedly about how much I was loving the record and how they must hear it NOW! But instead, my excitement reverberated inside me as I listened again… and again (in completely the wrong order).
It has been a long time since an album made sense to me so completely. I feel like it’s pretty much the album that I have been waiting for since My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless warped my mind and redefined my parameters in 1991. Loveless had a similar genre-twisting glee at its molten heart as it wrapped its saccharine indie melodies in dancey psychedelic artfulness, buried under layers of pitch-warping textures, electronic and organic, the vocals whispered seductively under the swirling storm, the lyrics so obscured that it made you peer in deeper and deeper, trying to catch the odd word or phrase on which to hang the meaning of the song. In the intervening 23 years, I know I wasn’t the only one asking why there hadn’t been another Loveless.
As a musician myself, I find the effortlessness and grace with which Snaith switches up musical styles, playfully alluding to various genres, to be rarely short of breathtaking. Sometimes it feels like he is summoning up decades of dance and electronic music to frame his melodies. From one minute to the next you can hear nods to disco, rave, house, funk, r&b and pop, to name but a few. But picking apart the tapestry is about as interesting to me as… I dunno… stamp collecting or train-spotting. (Besides, I have no real interest in dissecting it for fear of breaking the spell.) What really fascinates me is how gracefully he synthesises all these elements and make them snap together and feel so distinctively his own. Our Love never feels studied or overthought. There’s never a sense that you’re observing an historian or an academic meticulously curate a retrospective of dance-floor fillers of the past 40 years. Quite the contrary — despite Snaith’s doctorate in pure mathematics — there’s nothing didactic or overly intellectual about this album. It feels spontaneous yet precise, emotionally warm and inviting yet twitchy and unresolved.
Beyond the title track and the lead single, there are many, many highlights but there are a couple of tracks that bear mentioning here:
“Back Home” starts off almost subliminally, building volume in sections as Snaith’s vocals coo tentatively over the opening verse. Then suddenly Dorothy is in Technicolor as the rhythmic synth figures burst into life with one of the most criminally understated instrumental hooks I can recall. Stuttering vocal samples lead us into the chorus repeat, then the full drums explode. This is the work of someone who has the ability and melodic know-how to take over the world but who seems content to tease and unsettle us by playing these massive hooks into left field with a fascinating yet frustrating arrangement.
“Second Chance” (vocals by Canadian singer Jessy Lanza) is an incredible piece of pop music. The staccato synths pulse throughout the track, unaffected by the pitch warping, and the beat that threatens to emerge fully but never does. The whole track drifts woozily in and out of phase in a way that offsets its sweetness, shifting the focus instead to the unease and pain of longing and regret.
Much has been said already about the meaning of the songs on Our Love. Honestly, I have no real idea what’s behind them; their exact meaning isn’t important to me. What it sounds like, though, is the faint but persistent sound of your own voice in your head when you are wrestling with something big, whether guilt or uncertainty, going over the same things endlessly as if doing so might shed a glimmer of light on whatever is causing the pain. It’s not an easy place to live but it’s hardly ever less than intoxicating.
I guess that it takes more than a near-perfect album to create the kind of impact that Loveless did in 1991. It needs to fall into some kind of musical-historical context — not only to be embraced by its intended audience, but to transcend the artist’s existing fan-base — for its influence to seep into a wider consciousness. This is especially true, in my opinion, of a record which straddles two different worlds. Is this a dance record for indie fans or is it an indie record for clubs? Does it matter? Actually, I think it kinda does matter. A record like this could capture the imagination of a generation of young musicians or it could fall between the cracks and be regarded, at best, as a “lost classic,” depending on which way the wind blows.
I really hope the latter is not the case, but it’s just possible that Snaith has created a record too subtle, too nuanced and, dare I say it, too beautiful for mass acceptance. That’s not a criticism or intended to sound in any way patronising, I just think that something this special should be heard and revered by so many more people.