How do you follow-up a debut album nearly universally hailed as a modern classic? For many years it looked like we’d never find out, at least in the case of the Avalanches. Since I Left You, the Australian band’s 2000 debut, wasn’t a huge seller at the time of its release, but its reputation has ballooned over the years and it’s now widely hailed as a masterpiece of sonic invention, wit, and whimsical nostalgia. A dizzying maze of countless samples from an endlessly diverse array of source material expertly welded together into a kaleidoscopic electro-pop dreamscape, Since I Left You is a genre unto itself.
It’s been a long wait for the follow-up. Years went by with no new Avalanches music, but fans had reason to keep hope. There were a handful of collaborations with other artists, tantalizing hints and boasts of massive amounts of new material being readied, and some of the guests who appear on the new album let slip that they’d been recording with the band. Still the years passed, and it sometimes appeared that the Avalanches’ destiny was to deliver one amazing album and then fade into the ether. Fortunately for all of us, the band itself had other ideas. It all came to a head in April of this year when a new image of a golden butterfly suddenly appeared on their social media accounts and website. Three live dates were announced the following day, and anticipation has been amped to a fever pitch ever since. On May 24th, the Avalanches finally confirmed what fans had been hoping for many, many years: a new album, Wildflower.
The band released a few teasers leading up to the album’s release. “Frankie Sinatra” was handed the heavy burden of being the first new Avalanches single since the dawn of the millennium, and just hearing them again was a thrill in itself. As wonderfully kooky and adventurous as one would expect from the Avalanches, it was hard to know quite what to make of it at first. Like the rest of the album, “Frankie Sinatra” rewards repeated listens. Guest artist Danny Brown raps over a wild carousel-ride accompaniment, a carnival acid trip of flashing lights and clowns and infinite weirdness. Next came “Colours”, a glorious swirl of lush vocals and electro samples with a celestial Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips vibe. The third advance peek was “Subways”, perhaps the finest of the three, a joyous confection of glistening string samples and unexpected twists and turns that capture the essence of what the Avalanches are all about.
Fans’ nearly infinite patience was finally rewarded when Wildflower was made available for streaming July 1 on Apple Music, and then a week later on other digital platforms and in physical formats, including vinyl. The band has given multiple interviews since their return from oblivion, and it turns out that it really did take the full 16 years since their debut to complete the album, which shifted directions multiple times over the years and incorporates bits and pieces of other projects that were abandoned along the way. Given the mish-mash nature of the music itself, its lengthy and haphazard gestation allowed the band to develop a wide range of material that they piece together like mad scientists conducting sound experiments in the world’s largest album depository.
There are many highlights and much to digest on an album with as much information as Wildflower. Don’t expect to put it on and fully grasp it after one or three or even a dozen listens. It’s the kind of album that will be offering new discoveries to the careful listener years from now. “If I Was a Folkstar”, a collaboration with Toro y Moi, is a trippy delight that weaves mid-’60s Beach Boys-esque harmony vocals through a buoyantly upbeat groove. “Live a Lifetime Love” features guests Ariel Pink and rapper Paris Pershun of A.Dd+, and is easily the most aggressive and strident piece on the album. It works, though, drifting off into an ethereal netherworld just when you least expect it before diving back into its manic attack. The band keeps the nostalgic ‘60s influences brewing in the interlude “Park Music”, one of the loveliest pieces on the album. It fades right into the equally sublime “Livin’ Underwater (Is Somethin’ Wild)”, a slowly swaying ripple of pure elegance and charm.
Wildflower is a continuous mix that changes vibe and direction without warning, sometimes within the same song, and around the next turn is always something unexpected. Another instant classic is “Sunshine”, a summery creation that exudes pure joy with its sinuously layered vocal effects and winsome references to the halcyon days of ‘60s pop. The marriage of old-school samples with modern sounds and technology is one of the keys to the magical, breezily carefree vibe that is pure Avalanches. Nobody else sounds like they do, nobody else can do what they do, and Wildflower proves again and again that it wasn’t a one-shot deal 16 years ago.
There are elements of humor woven through the album, just like with their debut. The one moment on Wildflower that doesn’t quite work is “The Noisy Eater”, with abrasive vocals by rapper Biz Markie (known for his equally obnoxious ‘90s novelty single “Just a Friend”). It’s a joke that wears thin very quickly and is ultimately more of an annoyance than anything else. As a :30 second interlude it may have been tolerable, but as a full-blown 3:15 song it just makes the finger itch for the skip button. Apart from that, though, there is very little to dislike. The album wraps up with the energetic anthem “Saturday Night Inside Out”, with a driving rhythm and heavy groove that slams an emphatic exclamation point on an hour-long musical journey through dimensions of sound and invention that were previously only accessible via the band’s magical debut.
The only recent example that comes to mind of an artist who released a cornerstone classic only to fall silent for an extended period that might be somewhat analogous to the Avalanches’ situation is My Bloody Valentine, who waited 22 years to deliver the follow-up to their landmark 1991 shoegazing epic Loveless with 2013’s superb MBV. My Bloody Valentine didn’t just meet expectations, they shattered them. Could the Avalanches do so as well? True, it’s not necessarily fair to hold an artist to that nearly impossible standard, but it’s the obvious question nonetheless. After 16 years, and enough spins to absorb it as completely as possible in a relatively short time frame, how does Wildflower stack up to Since I Left You? Quite well, actually.
There are certain aspects that will never be replicable, of course. The novelty and and sparkling originality of Since I Left You is never going to be equaled because we’ve experienced it. That moment of blissful surprise is gone, never to be repeated. “It’s never as good as the first time” doesn’t just go for a kiss, or sex. That said, there is plenty to be elated about on Wildflower. The hard work the band put into this album over the past decade and half is abundantly obvious. As with their debut, the exquisitely painstaking craftsmanship, the overriding sense joy and wonder, the ears wide open to an infinite universe of sonic possibility are all there. It sounds like the Avalanches, and nothing else does. That in and of itself is reason for a long overdue celebration. If music can be a salve for the soul in deeply troubled times, then it doesn’t get much better than this. Wildflower arrived just in time, just when we needed it most.