By anyone’s standards, Caribou’s Dan Snaith has a pretty impressive batting average. With the exception of 2001’s slightly bland glitchtronica pre-season tryout Start Breaking My Heart, Snaith’s much-adored full-lengths wound up in many year- and decade-end lists throughout the naughts. Swim is Snaith’s fifth solo long player (two were released under a moniker whose name can now only be used to advertise on behalf of a geriatric ex-punk) and he’s back to broken hearts. Swim‘s sonics boast valleys and peaks that play out like the domestic dramas contained within the lyrics. Despite a decidedly acute pop bent held over from 2007’s Andorra, the sketches of human interpersonal struggle are best heard as the aggregate of a fragmented exposition, rather than nine separate acts.
Andorra was full-band ‘60s-inflected psychedelic pop that recalled a more restrained version of the wily sensorama of 2003’s Up in Flames, itself a work of multivalent hazy retro-futurist pop and still his masterpiece. Andorra was Snaith’s most well-received work to date and likely achieved its lauds (including the 2008 Polaris Prize) by scaling back some of his most alienating electronics in favor of a more traditional lineup. To his credit, though, he retained an experimental edge through his thunderous double drumset pounding and acid-daubed Joe Meek production wizardry. Swim, the second Caribou album on the macro-indie Merge label, reimports synth patches, runs most percussion through laptop programming, and defies traditional song structures via his role behind the mixing board. It’s not precisely an anti-Andorra in this regard, but its compositional exchanges can be viewed as an anamorphic adaptation to a dance mirror of the (now) traditional Caribou model. The album was apparently composed during a time period when Snaith only left the house for pools and clubs. And though the former won the title of the piece, it’s perhaps the latter that comes through the most in the music.
Swim correlates in this regard to this year’s excellent There Is Love in You by Four Tet, an artist whose output has often garnered a lot of comparisons to Snaith’s, despite significant acoustic and intensity apertures between the two artists. Snaith doesn’t completely give himself over to the club as Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden does, but the songs here would sound more comfortable in that setting than perhaps almost anything is his past oeuvre would have. In fact, they’re stuck somewhere in that liminal space betwixt the fuzzy radio dial of ideal airwaves and the flicker of a strobe. That the album was recorded in the studio of Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan should be no surprise then, as Greenspan’s own band has teetered that line for the length of its career.
Like previous Caribou/Manitoba LPs, Swim is succinct at just nine songs and about a 43-minute running time. The excess of high quality B-sides released between past albums suggests that this concision is purposeful choice, but it also allows less room for error the course of a disc. As per usual though, Caribou carries through pretty deftly, striking far more often than he misses.
One of his only weaknesses in the past was keeping the psychedelic drift of his songs in check with the compact pop configurations of the arrangements. More often than not, Snaith will choose the drone when one is mentally expecting a melodic change. Or the bass would remain homophonic while the synesthetic timbres of the flutes, xylophones, and fluttering cyber-bird calls stretch out along the color wheel. Swim offers a few places wherein this desire for song structures need not apply.
The first is the marvelous “Sun”, a brilliant metronomic joyride built around a wobbly bassline and perseverating variations on the title phrase coming in and out of phase while various other exotic and unexpected aural gaffer charms tickle the cochlea. “Bowls” is melodically sparse and sonically dense. It has clangor all over, from the rumble bass to the resonant chimes and chops of the opening passage. The rhythm layers are especially expressive, tripping off into some Teo Macero wonderland. At one point the snare shivers in reverb, then gradually eases off, becomes staccato, inhales, and breaths out. Harps mystify in the forefront as fireworks distracting the magic tricks behind it. One is never quite sure what one should be focusing on at any given point. The listener is completely outnumbered.
“Hannibal” is free-floating like this as well, but it is slightly less successful at building around a core contingency. This time around the center is a stringy guitar ‘n’ synth dual that dances with a kind of dubstep elasticity. When the brass arrives, it lacks much of the sunglazed treatment generally given to the barrage of “organic” instruments featured across Snaith’s old stuff. Unadorned in FX, it feels on borrow from Matthew Herbert’s big band or Tortoise’s chamber pop. Either way, it’s a bit out of place here. The song turns though at around the 4:05 mark when all but the march-gaited beat and a buzzing two-note arpeggio flute fall out. The rest of the track comes back in bits and dubbed-the-F-out fractions as if the tune got hijacked by Mad Professor. “When he gets home the house feels empty” go the lyrics, stressing the newly opened spaces unearthed upon poor Hannibal.
As the album does not feel fully or even half-submerged, the album title seems to relate mostly to the characters, who, true to Andorra’s form, are called out by name in the song titles (“Lalibela”, “Odessa”, “Jamelia”, “Kaili”, “Hannibal”). I suggest that these are characters because, by all accounts, Snaith seems to be happily married, whereas the male narrator of “Jamelia” is stuck asking, “Did I not do enough to save the two of us? / What more could I give her? / What more can I do to see her point of view?”. Kaili, meanwhile, must remind herself “She can hold on to her own / If it comes to push and shove”.
Swim seems mostly to focus on wronged females who must either “swim” or drown. Foremost is “Odessa”, the lead single and definitely one of the most defiantly eccentric of the bunch. The song is about a woman who is “tired of crying and she’s sick of these lies / She’s suffered him for far too many years of her life” and is now “Taking the kids / Driving away”. The main hook is a processed vocal sample somewhere halfway between a dolorous weep and a ghostly moan. Its pairing with persistent bass, colorful keyboard rolls, cowbell tings, and microfunk accents seems mismatched at first, but the song grows on the listener after repeated spins. It has the tendency to recall the first time one hears the off-putting tenacity of Japan’s “Still Life in Mobile Homes” opening up Tin Drum. Its conjunctions sound too aberrant to be pop proper until one adjusts him or herself outside of the conservatism of a 50-year radio model.
And that pretty much sums up Snaith’s racket up until this point. His infinitely listenable prismatic psychocandy has often been lumped in with dream pop. Though the tag fits less and less as he progresses, Caribou proves on Swim that he can still make the kind of pop one dreams of.