A Sparkly Sign o’ The Times
After thirteen years, three pseudonyms and far too many live members to begin to name, Caribou architect Dan Snaith might have finally settled into something resembling a groove. His latest offering, Our Love, is threaded together by the blanketing synths and throbbing bass characteristic of contemporary electronica and dance music, continuing down the Thriller-style light-up walkway on which 2010’s Swim left listeners dancing.
From the outset, the title of the album works to convey the work’s stylistic intimacy – while driving dance floor sensibilities are center stage on Our Love, the instrumentation feels ear-catchingly sparse, as if the synth layers are being emitted from speakers set at opposite ends of an empty concert hall. The air of fragility concocted by Snaith’s clever use of space and his own heady croon bathe tracks like opener “All I Ever Need” in an haze of echoing loops that create a delightfully heavy contrast with the song’s disco backbeat. “Our Love” might remind listeners of Caribou’s contemporary James Blake, exhibiting familiar traits inherited from technetronic forbears Brian Eno and The Orb. The title track serves as a microcosm of the entire album, with a dance club core punctuated by Snaith’s nigh falsetto-vocal and trademark off-kilter, minor key synth squelches. The whomping bass line and snare drum claps of “Dive” even have a foot in the door of dub-influenced hip-hop, while the shimmering string arrangements and four-on-the-floor pulse of “Can’t Do Without You” echoes of 1990’s house music.
“Mars” is the album’s most lengthy organic spurt, and the only song on Our Love to prominently feature an instrument that might not be a synthesizer. The Polyrhythmic, sharp-edged funk as exotic flute melody is an instrumental high point of the album, a moment strongly reminiscent of the jungle beat of “Leave House” that could have lasted a bit longer. Therein is the crux the album’s principal shortcoming: Snaith has re-metabolized the jarring production techniques and mismatched instrumentation that constituted Caribou’s ear-catching experimentation in earlier records as ornamental trappings for the purposes of Our Love, re-framing old standbys like woodwind solos and marimba noodling as mere musical novelties.
The shimmery electronic impulses that have come to define Caribou’s sound first surfaced on the indie rock-ish The Milk of Human Kindness – Snaith’s critical breakthrough and first album under the Caribou moniker – even if they were sometimes hidden in a dense forest of tenor saxophone bursts, crash cymbals and the trebly jangling of looped electric guitars. Two albums later, Swimmarked yet another stylistic benchmark for Caribou – the guitars seeming to have melted into oscillating layers of echoey vocals and wavering synths. With its even textures and consistent instrumentation, Our Love produces more of a swirling, intricately woven tapestry than the motley patchwork of electrojams that caught listeners’ attention on predecessors The Milk of Human Kindness, Andorra and Swim.
The trade-off starts to seem worth it during the the minor chord-laden stomp of “Back Home”, when the push-and-pull of the electronic arrangements allow Snaith’s paradoxically delicate voice to dig in and gain some rhythmic traction. Outside of that, however, Our Love feels scattered, inconsistent, as Snaith’s choice to sacrifice the occasionally dysfunctional but always noteworthy eclecticism that kick-started his career is ultimately not worth it. The hackneyed female guest vocals that pepper “Second Chance” would sound at home on a Rihanna single. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the end result feels like a half-written, phoned-in, EDM-influenced pop song. The consistent dance pulse gets repetitive, but that would be forgivable if the song structure and lyrics were as varied as listeners have to come expect from a Caribou record. This is not an issue of synthesizers versus guitars; Snaith has painted far better work with the same palette he dabbed from to create Our Love – Swim being an example.
It’s very rare that such a sugary dance album feels so much longer than it actually is. Our Love is certainly worth a look if you’re a fan of indie pop, but fans of older Caribou releases will be left yearning for the oddities that gave Milk its flavor and variety, or even the more consistent songwriting of Swim.