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Album Of The Week

Starry Messengers: The Avalanches Return With We Will Always Love You
Matthew Horton , December 10th, 2020 09:52

The Avalanches set controls for the heart of fun on their new album featuring a bevy of special guests, including Sananda Maitreya, Vashti Bunyan, Blood Orange, Rivers Cuomo and Pink Siifu

In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager space probes into the cosmos, sending with them the famous Voyager Golden Record, a two-disc phonographic time capsule summing up a culture, a species, a planet’s worth of biodiversity. Those slabs of audio-visual gold are out there somewhere in interstellar space, waiting to entertain aliens starved of a cut of prime Chuck Berry. No need for a difficult second album yet.

The Voyagers have checked in with Earth every day for 43 years, which is more than you can say for sample-crazy Australian hermits The Avalanches, who spent the first 16 years of the century failing to follow up their own golden record, stellar debut Since I Left You. Maybe they were forging their own comet-like furrow of regularity, and it would be another 16 years before the psychedelic candy box of 2016’s Wildflower had its sequel? Apparently not. This week’s arrival of We Will Always Love You raises the tantalising prospect of The Avalanches moving into FIFA time with a release every four years. Or maybe they’re accelerating into a lightspeed era of new records materialising before you’ve even finished listening to the last one, swallowing plunderable charity shop finds until the only thing left in Oxfams the world over is Toploader’s Onka’s Big Moka.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, as remaining Avalanches Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi doubtless say. In the here and now, they’ve been suffering like the rest of us, stymied by lockdowns as they edged towards the completion of their third album. We Will Always Love You is as intricately assembled as its predecessors, its lower-hundreds sample count not quite matching Since I Left You’s near-thousand total, but with enough guest stars to outnumber Wildflower’s already impressive cadre. It must’ve been a demoralising home straight, but Chater and Di Blasi were driven by a concept, and it’s back to the Voyagers.

That Golden Record is the inspiration behind We Will Always Love You, not just for its celebration of Gaia beamed through eternity, but for its creators too. The then-budding relationship between the project’s Executive Director Carl Sagan and its Creative Director Ann Druyan is the real catalyst, encouraging the seductive idea that Druyan’s heartbeat, captured on the Golden Record, is swelled by love at that very instant, and broadcasting its ardour to the universe. Druyan is on the cover of We Will Always Love You, her image captured from a TV set and then fed through a spectrograph, mapped like a solar phenomenon to tie up the concept. Druyan, the cosmos, the music, universal love – it’s all one.

If that sounds gooey, may as well buy into it. The Avalanches are in this for the long haul, bookending the album with Morse code just like the Voyagers’ cargo and taking us on a 25-song trip through light, stars and glittering guest spots.

Some fellow travellers are just made for this kind of voyage. Sananda Maitreya – FKA Terence Trent D’Arby – has been on his own spectral journey for some time. He brings a preacher’s authority to the otherwise dreamy trip-hop of ‘Reflecting Light’, duetting with a Vashti Bunyan sample, while Perry Farrell sounds more and more like Dennis Wilson with the passing years, all narcotised surf dude on the gospel disco of ‘Oh The Sunn!’, marvelling at the “big, big, beautiful light!” They’re disparate souls united in bliss. Even Tricky mothballs his customary menace to murmur sweetly as Rotary Connection psych-soul meets G Funk on ‘Take Care In Your Dreaming’. He leaves the heavy lifting and thrilling flow to Denzel Curry and Sampa The Great as the cameos get wilder.

This sense of laidback rapture is pervasive, interrupted only fleetingly. The dancehall electronica of ‘Wherever You Go’, where Neneh Cherry’s the familiar voice, watching the world burn behind us as Jamie xx cooks up a dubby buzz, is a warm-up for the filter-disco funk of ‘Music Makes Me High’ and the euphoric deep house of ‘Overcome’ as We Will Always Love You takes flight just past the halfway mark and briefly finds the accelerator – but this isn’t a record for the dancefloor. It’s too stop-start for that, and often underpowered – deliberately so. It leaves space.

Space for pure pop, more than ever. MGMT and Johnny Marr’s suitably heavenly collaboration on twinkling toytown ditty ‘The Divine Chord’ and Rivers Cuomo’s wallow in West Coast harmonies on the unspeakably catchy ‘Running Red Lights’ are compact, self-contained tunes that can breathe away from the album. The luminous tropical house of ‘We Go On’ – with its slightly bewildered, but loveable contribution from Mick Jones – and the featherlight groove nebulae of ‘Interstellar Love’ will burrow into the brain too, little nuggets that’ll stand alone.

When they’re in this mood, The Avalanches are an accomplished singles band. But it’s the touches of genius, the glue in the gaps, that show them at their best, as they always have. As We Will Always Love You embarks on its final circuits, Pink Siifu’s lithe, freeform rap gives way to cascading keys on ‘Always Black’, which wrap around a bit of foreboding jazz from Azimuth’s ‘The Tunnel’ and what sound like gasps from Minnie Riperton to create something entirely different, out of time and beautiful. A comfort in the void. That’s the aim of Chater and Di Blasi’s galactic hug, and god knows we could all do with a soppy moment of communion right now. But let’s not be selfish. Stick it on a rocket and share the love.