Music

The Avalanches’ third album is their most explicitly spiritual record – and their best yet. By Shaad D’Souza.

We Will Always Love You

Tony DiBlasi and Robbie Chater.
Credit: Grant Spanier

A few years ago, Robbie Chater sold nearly all his records. The multi-instrumentalist and producer – a founding member of revered Melbourne electronic group The Avalanches alongside Tony DiBlasi, Darren Seltmann and Gordon McQuilten – had spent a lifetime collecting, listening to and reinterpreting banged-up old discs, taking sounds lost to time or changing tastes and turning them into millennial party classics.

To some, a sampler selling their records is akin to a guitarist getting rid of their guitar, or a vocalist rendering themselves mute. “I had this moment, one day, of realising I probably would never pull out half these records and listen to them ever again,” Chater explained a couple of years ago. “They’re just possessions now … it’s been a lovely experience of building up another small record collection, from the beginning. And this one might last for 20 years again, and then I’ll sell it, and then do it again.”

The sentiment that music isn’t something static to be collected or catalogued, but a living, ever-changing thing, has become rare in modern music. Over the past few years, the idea that music has a life of its own, that it can and should be filtered through memory or culture and remade into something entirely new, has largely dissipated.

Now, more than ever, music is seen as a commodity. The practice of suing musicians over work with perceived similarities to older songs is rampant, with little empathy paid to historically legitimate ideas of influence. Wall Street investment funds are buying up the publishing rights to huge swaths of popular music with the intention of treating them like stocks, to be held with an iron fist and released only for the right price. Pop music as a cultural and artistic product seems to exist in a climate that misunderstands it completely.

If there were ever a group who understood the strange, metaphysical properties of pop music, it’s The Avalanches. Their small, momentous output – two dense and beautiful records, released nearly two decades apart – is some of the best music ever made that’s also about music.

Sampling – the practice of tearing apart old songs and reshaping and reworking elements of them in order to form the basis of new music – wasn’t a new practice when Chater and Seltmann began work on their debut album, Since I Left You, in the late ’90s, but it arguably meant something different afterwards. Since I Left You wasn’t defined by the various “cool” samples among the many thousand that comprised the record but by the obscure, uncool and bizarre ones.

The record was as much audio essay as it was party album, an argument that any song – no matter how esoteric or strange – could be beautiful, significant and life-affirming. It also served as proof that pretty much anything can be given a second life, given the right touch.

Sixteen years later, the band – now only Chater and DiBlasi, with a handful of members coming and going over the tumultuous interceding years – doubled down on that idea. They selected a distinctive and idiosyncratic set of artists, including the rapper Danny Brown, indie rock musician David Berman and producer Chaz Bundick, to contribute guest vocals and lyrics to their sophomore record, Wildflower. It was a more traditional album than Since I Left You, but it was no less transporting, evoking wide-eyed ’70s optimism and thundering ’90s beatwork in service of a record as joyous and unique as its predecessor.

A mere four years later, Chater and DiBlasi have re-emerged with We Will Always Love You. Clocking in at 25 songs, 72 minutes, and a comparatively huge 21-plus guest vocalists and producers, it’s the longest and least sample-based – although the individual samples still number in the hundreds, supposedly – Avalanches album. It is also probably their best, even in comparison with the lauded Since I Left You. Guided by a kind of cosmic, omnipotent sense of empathy, it’s the band’s most explicitly spiritual album, a record about the strange and surreal powers of music as a life force and universal language.

We Will Always Love You revolves around a handful of weighty, impossible-to-explain concepts – what happens when we die, what happens to the sound and energy we put into the world, the idea of some kind of culturally felt afterlife. It’s rooted in some of the most minimal and physically felt music the duo have ever made, although wobbling, high-pitched voices still float in and out of frame almost constantly, and many songs are still made of layer upon layer of impenetrable, AM radio-style garbled transmission.

Some songs – such as the Mick Jones- and Cola Boyy-aided “We Go On”, as well as “Wherever You Go”, co-produced by British indie dance darling Jamie xx – are built around heavy, muscular club beats, and are almost surprising in how blatantly dancefloor-forward they are. The latter track in particular, based around a Brazilian vocal sample, brings to mind the crowd-pleasing rave-pop of fellow local producers PNAU, a comparison that, four years ago, would have sounded absolutely insane.

For the most part, though, We Will Always Love You feels more introspective than past Avalanches albums. An early vocal performance from British artist Blood Orange sets the tone for an album profoundly interested in how to find meaning beyond day-to-day existence: “Draped in monotony / What’s my life gotten me? / Hard to be glorious when two minds meet in the corner.” Later, over a bed of moody synths, Sananda Maitreya – the artist formerly known as Terence Trent D’Arby – makes the idea more explicit, singing “Life herself is habit forming / All of my nights were made for morning.” This pained, restless feeling runs through much of We Will Always Love You: a yearning for something greater than what has been given.

That feeling is often heartbreaking, but The Avalanches seem to have the answers. We Will Always Love You makes a case for music-and art-making as its own way of maintaining your consciousness in the world. On “Take Care in Your Dreaming”, the Florida rapper Denzel Curry, usually a chaotic presence on his own records, delivers a meditative verse about the ways rapping helped give purpose to his life, while “Dial D for Devotion” and “Running Red Lights” find the band interpolating some of the final lyrics written by their friend and collaborator Berman, who died last year. “Gold Sky” features indie-rock musician Kurt Vile delivering a spoken-word passage in the style of Berman’s turn on Wildflower, conjuring an alternative reality in which Berman contributed vocals to this album, as opposed to just lyrics.

This album is inspired in part by the emotional enlightenment Chater attained after dealing with an alcohol problem that upended his life and nearly caused the end of the band. It’s easy to scoff at some of the sentiments he has expressed since – “We really are children of the universe,” he said in a recent press release – but that’s beside the point. We Will Always Love You is about giving yourself up to greater powers in the world, whether they be love, the cosmos, or something else entirely. It’s old-fashioned in that it has a great deal to give – not for the right price or to the highest bidder, but to anyone willing to listen. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2020 as "An avalanche of feeling".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Shaad D’Souza is The Saturday Paper’s music critic.