A few weeks ago in the New York Botanical Garden, the corpse flower (pictured above) came into bloom, releasing a stench variously described as smelling of rotting meat, sweaty socks, limburger cheese, human feces, and ‘lettuce when you take it out of the bag’. One six year old called it ‘worse than a thousand pukes‘. The flower takes ten years to come into bloom, a bloom which lasts for just a day, after which it dies. In New York, it is only the second time a corpse flower has successfully bloomed since 1939.
Many had been waiting a similarly long time – 16 years, to be exact – for Wildflower, the new album from the Avalanches. Such long waits create unreasonable expectations, and the idea of a “new Avalanches” had become something like the Chinese Democracy of bright, colourful, sample-based electronica. There was a good chance that, like the corpse flower, this wildflower’s bloom would turn out to be a horrid stink, an overthought, overproduced mess of incompatible scents, once-good ideas turned fetid and foul from too long in the think tank. I feared it might sour all the golden memories that have gathered around their essentially perfect debut, Since I Left You.
A relief, then, that as we gathered round waiting for this bud to finally bloom, it turned out not to be a corpse flower at all. Because Wildflower is fantastic. Take a deep breath of its heady perfume and find yourself intoxicated.
Records this complex and detail-orientated simply take a long time to grow, not to mention the headache of clearing so many samples. Now it’s here, the long wait doesn’t feel like an important part of the narrative anymore: this is simply the next step in the Avalanches’ evolution. Which means subtle changes – the introduction of guest vocalists, the added string-parts gliding over the rush – and a whole lot more of what they already did brilliantly: a potpourri of perfectly-chosen samples, all mixed and mingled into mind-altering new arrangements. Nobody does it better.
The Avalanches are easy-going perfectionists. The sounds, every micro-second of them, are considered and mixed to perfection, and yet, formally, their arrangement remains baggy and loose. So the whole thing feels almost improvised, thrown together, when actually it was painstakingly crafted over a decade and a half. ‘Frankie Sinatra’ reportedly went through over a hundred mixes to get it right, even after the arrangement had been settled on: yet it sounds like a ridiculous, out-of-control party.
Since I Left You felt like one long, sunstroke-induced dream, a hallucinatory journey complete with maps and ships and islands and beaches and tropical birds. Wildflower is still dreamy, but it feels a little more alive and ragged and unpredictable. Gone is the island paradise vibe – this feels more like a summer in the city, cramped and humid and buzzing with activity. ‘Live a Lifetime Love’ just bursts out the gates, the chatter of voices all around the mix. ‘The Wozard of Iz’ takes its classic 90s hip-hop beat and warps it in the sizzle of hot, smog-refracted sunlight. The sample of a child singing at the start of ‘Because I’m Me’ bursts with a youthful energy, crackling and spilling out in directions it’s not meant to. There’s a similar sensation in ‘Subways’, where the end of the line (“what you found”) seems to rush off with the beat. Honestly, it’s amazing how much life-force there is to this record, how in-the-moment it feels, for something that took so long to make.
Like many, I came to the Avalanches through the manic funhouse romp of ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’. The spiritual successor to that song here is ‘The Noisy Eater’, which is perhaps even sillier, and features some great guest verses from Biz Markie, and a kid-choir singing the unmistakable first verse from ‘Come Together’. (I imagine that sample must have been a nightmare to clear, but let’s be thankful Pat Shannahan managed it, as it makes the song). But while there are few moments like this of uninhibited crazy, there are also tinges throughout of sadness, regret, nostalgia, hope – a whole range of emotions. ‘If I Was a Folkstar’, with guest vocals from Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundwick, is particularly wistful. The warped vocals of ‘Sunshine’ hit exactly the right balance between happy and sad that the band have spoken of aiming for. Nostalgia is, of course, the key emotion in Avalanches’ music, and Mark Richardson, in his spot-on-as-usual review, made the point that Wildflower engages in a kind of double-nostalgia: nostalgia for the seventies refracted through nostalgia for the nineties. Even the cover art does this: it’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On refracted through Screamadelica.
I can’t help but wonder how long we’ll have to wait for the next one. Another sixteen years? I’m not sure I mind. If it takes this long to make records this good, then so be it. I’ll be there, gathered round with my headphones, waiting for it to bloom.