Surely at this stage of late rock music capitalism that we find ourselves in, we’re all familiar with the notion of the reunion. Whether they arrive out of resistance to the encroaching boredom of retirement or from the irresistible allure of sweet, sweet cash, hearing the news that a group I once loved will be forging ahead again often inspires both excitement and worry. Reunions come in many varieties: on the traditional end, you have your bands from 30+ years ago coming to reassume a throne that was already theirs to begin with. If Talking Heads or The Smiths ever reunite, they’ll immediately headline arenas, even if there’s little to no promise of any new or groundbreaking music on the way. Sometimes you get bands like Swans or Sleater-Kinney jumping back in after 10 years to find a much larger fanbase than they left behind. Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada returned in under a decade with new albums so identical to their previous work that it almost felt like they had never left (for better and for worse).
Yet there is something unequivocally legendary about the circle of reunions that The Avalanches belong to in revealing Wildflower, their first album in 16 years. Since I Left You, their one-and-done goofball disco extravaganza, exists in the same circle as fellow reuniters My Bloody Valentine and Neutral Milk Hotel, artists who so powerfully laid their vision to the world at such an early stage in their careers that the ensuing absence of a follow-up seemed to beckon the question of what could have been. In leaving us wanting, these artists created a physical manifestation of that age old cliché about music being less about the notes and more about the spaces in between.
More than any of these other groups, however, The Avalanches’ M.O. deals the most explicitly in this disconnect between what is had and what is wanted, the kind of thinking that gets you asking questions like what could have been in the first place. Since I Left You was the ultimate vacation record precisely because of how aware its creators were of the need for escape, not just in ecstatic nights at the club, but while gazing out the window on the bus or slipping into daydreams at your desk. The Avalanches are after sentimentality in its most sociable form, and in that way, their dance music feels like a brotherly companion to other 21st-century plunderers like Daft Punk or J Dilla, smashing together commercials, film scores, jazz, folk, funk, hip-hop, and whatever other tidbits they can use to tell their story. The cohesiveness of Since I Left You is a crucial element to its enduring charm, its segues and in-between chatter serving as the foundation and bridges that connect it from beginning to end, like a Japanese emakimono-style picture scroll, the small moments as significant as the large ones in the grand scheme of the landscape. By declaring their own love for fantastical romance and spinning yarn, The Avalanches participated in the same mythologizing that came to define their career, seeking adventure in the endless sounds of the past in the hopes of paving our way toward a brighter and more blissful future.
This capacity for narrative is alive and well in Wildflower, an album that more than anything highlights just exactly what we’ve been missing in the 16 years since The Avalanches shied away from the musical world. Listening to this album in 2016 is like eating Pop Rocks for the first time since you were a kid, and its strange, high-concentrated sugar rush stands in contrast to the constant stream of saccharine commercialism we find ourselves subjected to these days, whether in our YouTube ads or through our music. Rather than focusing their energies toward a hyper-personalized corporate “intimacy” of segmentation or overplaying the heavy-handedness of their own importance, The Avalanches shoot broadly with Wildflower, aiming for a universal kind of peace-loving party attitude as indebted to the 1960s as it is utterly modern. Its samples call out to platitudes of love and harmony and sunshine and colors while rubbing shoulders with occasionally profane rap verses and the weird underbelly of nightlife, a genuine mixtape of the past 50 years of Western culture meshed together to create a unified flow of companionship and good vibes. At times, it can feel like a test of how much unabashed, childlike sincerity you can take in one sitting, but more often than not, its presence is a welcome face among the ocean of nameless DJs and offhanded SoundCloud mixes it’s so easy to drown in nowadays.
The most gratifying moments on Wildflower are the ones when The Avalanches rely less on the charisma of their sound sources and collaborators, and more on their own innate sense of splicing together gold. An uncannily looping vocal cut elevates “Sunshine” from a chopped-up oldie into a heady, bittersweet concoction, and the Toro y Moi guest vocals on “If I Was A Folkstar” are so subdued that it’s easy to miss them entirely in the song’s shuffling, pensive atmospherics. The most powerful track on the record might well be “Zap!,” a quiet interlude of droopy harmonica and hushed stargazing dialogue about private places and the inevitable comedown of flying; its respite is so gorgeous and so intimate that the hamfisted song that follows feels like a bucket of cold water by comparison. “The Noisy Eater” is a blatant gag of a track consisting of munching sounds and some food-rap by Biz Markie that, while thematically consistent with the rest of the album, is too gimmicky for its own good. The same goes for lead single “Frankie Sinatra,” which revolves around a hook that even its creators admitted to initially finding “strangely repetitive and annoying,” and though its electro-swing carousal makes more sense in context than it did as a standalone, its effect is still largely jarring. The Avalanches are anything if not committed though, and even on tracks like “Colours,” whose lyrics about mermaids and how “everybody’s going somewhere” scan as a shade too cloying, they can’t keep the music from exuding its vital, magical, and genuinely uplifting aura.
Like the supposed island-hopping mythos of Since I Left You, Wildflower tells a blurry and impressionistic tale of urban adolescence, of losing oneself in dream, of fantasies that serve to enrich our daily lives rather than tempting us to escape them. From the early highlight “Subways,” with its commuting 12-year-old vocalist, to the drive-time radio chatter littered throughout the record, the environment of Wildflower is not the tropical paradise of The Avalanches’ debut, but a funhouse mirror of our own home turf (even if these guys are Australian, just look at that Sly Stone cover nod). The overt move toward hip-hop only adds to this feeling, led early on by Camp Lo’s opening verse on the ecstatic “Because I’m Me,” and taken even further by Danny Brown’s multiple accounts of drug-addled encounters with the law on “Frankie Sinatra” and “The Wozard of Iz.”
But the true bedrock of the entire album lies in that tension between reality and imagination, an idea that seeps through in Jonathan Donahue’s tripped-out lyrics or in the heavenly hippie samples stringing the record from front to back (the hook of “Light Up” being perhaps the most blatant — “Doot doo doot doo-doo/ Iiiiiiit’s a wooooorld of faaaaantasyyyy”). As psychotropic as it might seem, however, Wildflower really is a work of the everyday, adaptable for even the most mundane environments with its stew of good-times styles plucked from throughout history, a reliable lift in times where it’s easy to get sunk in the encroaching misery of the world. David Berman encapsulates this mindframe to perfection in the closing poem of “Saturday Night Inside Out,” a diaristic memory of courtship made anew by his lush reimagining of the routine: “I first saw her in a mega store/ The day-glo raven born into a free fall/ The fulfillment of a 10th grade prophecy/ A motel masterpiece.” These aren’t jams for descending into the rabbit hole, but rather keys to unlocking the fantastical side of life, not promising us access to another better world but turning our eyes and ears toward this one. If Since I Left You was a soundtrack for the long weekend, Wildflower is a playlist for getting back into the grind, a reminder to keep our heads up and appreciate what we’ve got.
Wildflower isn’t going to shift any paradigms, and it’s not going to leave the same impression on the world that Since I Left You did all those years ago, but none of that makes it any less of a delight to listen to. Even in our current moment of remix culture pushing itself to the outer limits of sanity, The Avalanches remain singular in their trade, so wide-eyed and overflowing with energy that even their weaker moments are easy to forgive, more a fault of their own relentless enthusiasm than for any lack of effort. It’s good to see them, and it’s comforting to see an album emerge after such an alarmingly long gestation period that doesn’t feel overworked or overstated, but rather easygoing and just happy to be here. In returning from their 16-year hermitude, The Avalanches have imparted on us a reminder, a postcard from their travels, a chance to see how much has changed since the last time they stopped by, to take a moment and really smell the roses; who knows how long it’ll be till they bloom again?