Great Expectations: The Avalanches’ Wildflower, by Kevin O’Rourke

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When I was in graduate school, I had a very graduate school-esque conversation with an art faculty member about how so many artists—visual artists in particular—seem, as their fame grows, to increasingly produce rote work similar to the work that led to their fame. We discussed how artists can become risk averse, and can become trapped (by the demands of the marketplace, by their personal finances, by their need for people to continue being interested in their work) by the style of the work that led to them becoming successful artists. I’ve continued to think about this a lot since that conversation, and have wondered if certain artists’ work would be different if they hadn’t allowed themselves to become so trapped.

Take Kehinde Wiley, for example, who has for years now painted iconic/heroic portraits of black men and women in normal street wear over “ornate decorative backgrounds that evoke earlier eras and a range of cultures,” per Wiley’s site’s description of his newest traveling exhibition, “A New Republic.” What if Wiley didn’t have a studio of assistants to support, not to mention his own name to prop up and bills to pay? Would he have moved on from the work for which he’s become rightly famous—see 2006’s Le Roi a la Chasse for an early example—to paint landscapes or abstracts or hell, would he have dropped painting altogether and tried another medium? One can only speculate.

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This brings me to the new The Avalanches’ record, Wildflower, which sounds unmistakably like an Avalanches record. I don’t know what I was expecting after the sixteen-year wait between The Avalanches’ first and second albums, but I shouldn’t have been surprised that the group didn’t stray from its signature sound on Wildflower. The gap between The Avalanches’s first record—the landmark sample album Since I Left You, which is an absolute gem, an A+++ of an album—and the Australian group’s sophomore release must be a new record for delay between first and second albums. And it is that wait (think of everything that’s happened in the last sixteen years: 9/11! The fucking iPhone! The first black president!) that complicates any discussion of this record. Because Wildflower is more than just a sophomore album: it is the culmination of years of anticipation, for the group’s fans and no doubt for the group as well.

Imagine the pressure The Avalanches must have been under to produce a record that met the high bar set by Since I Left You—that pressure only growing as time passed and their second record’s status went from something people were interested in listening to, to something Pitchfork reported on breathlessly (“10 Times Hell Has Frozen Over Since the Last Avalanches Album”)—all while fans like me Googled the album’s status, roughly once a week, for sixteen goddamn years. It’s no wonder, then, that Wildflower plays it relatively safe, picking up more or less where Since I Left You left off.

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But is Wildflower any good? Yes. It’s very, very good. But it’s no Since I Left You. And not just because The Avalanches’s sound has been fully integrated into the zeitgeist since 2000. True, part of the reason Since I Left You was one of the very best albums released in the 2000s was because it sounded so novel. But it was also terrifically fun, a high-energy album whose songs all segued into one another, sounding like one, big long excellent song with eighteen movements.

Wildflower takes a different approach. To borrow from one track’s title, the experience of listening to the album is more kaleidoscopic than restless. While there aren’t really breaks between the songs on Wildflower, there are many more quiet sections, and even the big showpieces (like the first single “Frankie Sinatra,” on which Danny Brown and MF Doom guest and is this album’s answer to Since I Left You’s “Frontier Psychiatrist,” or my favorite, “If I Was a Folkstar,” which feaures Toro y Moi) fade in and out, as if one is looking for a song on the radio and it’s only after much knob-twiddling that you’re able to land on a beat that holds your attention.

Moreover, per The Avalanches’s medium of choice, this album is just brimming with samples, both in the fore- and backgrounds of songs. Almost half the song goes by before Danny Brown shows up on the second track he guest raps on, “The Wozard of Iz.” By the time he does, we’ve been treated to a particularly Avalanchey cornucopia of 60s rarities mixed together into a psychedelic hip-hop soup. And Brown’s verse, which contains lines about jerking off, Adderall, and “blunt after blunt after blunt / pill after pill after pill after pill,” is half-hidden under a wash of picked guitar notes, choral bits and beats that come and go, plus of course trilling flutes. It’s a kitchen sink, and over the course of the album the group’s approach occasionally gets to be a bit much. One gets that sense that during that sixteen-year period between studio albums, The Avalanches got their hands on a tremendous number of samples, and felt the need to use as many of them as possible on Wildflower.

But! But but but: none of this is to say Wildflower isn’t good. Hardly! It’s awesome. It’s just that where Since I Left You sounds like the essence of Saturday night captured in record form, Wildflower (which ends on the subdued “Saturday Night Inside Out,” which features David Berman’s down-at-the-mouth spoken word) is clearly a more mellow, mature record. After all, sixteen years is a long time, and The Avalanches (down to two fulltime members, Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi) aren’t getting any younger. As for me, I’m in my mid-thirties. Sixteen years is nearly half my adult life. The last time The Avalanches released a record, I was in college, being aggressively dumb. Now I am married, have a three-year-old, and listen to party albums when commuting. I hope very much I’m on the right side of 50 when The Avalanches release their third album.

 

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Kevin O’Rourke lives in Seattle, where he works at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. His first book, the essay collection As If Seen at an Angle, is forthcoming from Tinderbox Editions.

 

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