We Will Always Love You begins with what sounds like a teen girl in the throes of a breakup. “I will always love you,” she calls out through tears, and the Avalanches pick up her signal and broadcast it through space. Maybe the album is the journey it takes through the stars. The Avalanches were fascinated with the Voyager Golden Record in making their third album, engorged as it is with the possibilities of communicating across space and through time. Like Ellie Arroway in the movie Contact, it’s even a little bit enamored with the possibility of communicating with the dead through interstellar transmissions; a desperate quote from the great songwriter David Berman, who took his own life last year, echoes throughout the album. You can hear in this music the fantasies of a kid watching Superman spin backward around the world to turn back time, wishing they could do the same. It’s a response I imagine most of us have had recently.
The Avalanches have had an interesting career. Since I Left You from 2001 is a classic from the turn-of-the-millennium period when making music entirely from samples was the most radical and dangerous thing in the world. They dipped for 15 years, returning with the underrated Wildflower, which reinvented them as a guest-heavy psych-pop project somewhere between DJ Koze and Gorillaz: as devastating the former, as post-everything as the latter. We Will Always Love You is the first Avalanches album that feels like just another Avalanches album, which is a strength in that had this been released on the heels of Since I Left You, it would’ve been seen as a disappointing downer. If you’re returning 15 years after a classic, you can’t afford to be subtle or subdued.
We Will Always Love You is pessimistic, sometimes polemical, and often a drag, but like all the Avalanches’ past work, it mines that Brian Wilson sweet spot between happy and sad. The signature sound of latter-day Avalanches is a heavy filtered disco beat overlaid with a simple chord progression that brims with all manner of sighing and crying voices. “Music Makes Me High” and “Overcome” epitomize this style, and “Born to Lose” exemplifies it, its denouement flooded with children’s voices; it’s vibrant and a little bit violent. The Avalanches are a producer-oriented project in both the hip-hop and baroque-pop senses, displaying a whip-smart ear for samples while nodding to the acid-baked symphonies of the sixties through their sumptuous string arrangements. This is the rare band that aims for no less than transcendence, but they’re smart about it; they’re less interested in the ways we’re all connected than the ways we’re not.
On Wildflower, the guests helped them get there; Jonathan Donahue’s turn on “Kaleidoscopic Lovers” is one of the most wrenching psych-pop vocals of all time. Conversely, their logic towards their guests here is baffling. Imagine a Kurt Vile/Avalanches collab called “Gold Sky”. You’re probably imagining Kurt Vile’s voice drifting along an endless skyway of guitars while the Avalanches’ beats and filters tug from underneath. Instead, they have Vile just kind of babble, singing nary a note. Vashti Bunyan casts a spell for a few seconds and dips. Blood Orange delivers a navel-gazing rap on the title track, Rivers Cuomo drops a characteristically misguided nerd reference on “Running Red Lights,” and both Terence Trent D’Arby and Neneh Cherry bust out the kind of pseudo-political “-tion” rhymes artists use to sound deep. The guests that come off the best are Andrew VanWyngarden, in bratty Mick mode on “The Divine Chord”, and Leon Bridges, who just sort of sounds like a sample bobbing on the sea of “Interstellar Love”.
The Avalanches have complained reasonably about the amount of time making music from samples takes, hence all the guests. But a mostly instrumental version of We Will Always Love You, retaining the monologues and the Berman quote while excising most of the guests, would be vastly superior. The Avalanches as a collaborative pop project isn’t a bad look, but the guests here embarrass themselves in too many ways, mostly through vague polemics. We Will Always Love You is less poignant when it’s about “politicians calculated, in the tower insulated”—as Cherry raps on “Wherever You Go”—than when it’s about that lonely signal bouncing around among the stars, anxious to reach a distant planet before its source self-destructs.