Review: Caribou, Our Love

Caribou's most dance-floor friendly album yet is also his least cohesive.
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Caribou's most dance-floor friendly album yet is also his least cohesive.
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opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >

There’s no reliable definition and a thousand ways to deviate from it, but does “Can’t Do Without You,” the opening track and first single from Dan Snaith’s third full-length under the Caribou moniker, really qualify as a love song? Even as it builds in intensity it sounds like it’s spiraling down the drain; a line like “I can’t do without you,” delivered in Snaith’s perfect Brian Wilson, is a declaration of affection one time, but repeated almost ninety times it’s something else – a mantra, a memory, a thing not to be relinquished. Artificially thrust down an octave, it almost becomes unintelligible through overuse, a jumble of sounds standing in for a quickly receding idea. Those synths move in a straight line toward a neon climax but the words just go around and around; “do” has the antiquated sense of “function” here, but it’s also ghosted by an ellipsis. Do what? The words are so worn-in, so sunk in a circular groove, that they merely need to gesture at an idea to evoke it. It’s a lyric that comes from so deep within a personal complex that its specific referent can’t be grasped, only sensed through the emotional disclosures of the song. For five syllables, the line is frustratingly inexpressive; Charlie Dulik has written on this same site that “Can’t Do Without You” might be read as the internal pep talk leading up to the vocal declaration, but such an upbeat sentiment doesn’t apply to a song so incapable of opening up. “Can’t Do Without You” is a good deal grimmer than all that, hermetic and insular, not merely self-perpetuating but self-destructive. That pronoun “you” stands for the person Snaith’s singing about, but that doesn’t make her the addressee; she almost certainly never gets the message. (Later, on “second Chance,” she gets the opportunity to speak her part, and she just asks for a little clear communication, which she’ll never receive.) She’s manifest in the song only as a “thing” that Snaith “think[s] about,” as “the one” he “dream[s] about,” as an absence. “You’re the only thing I think about, it’s all that I can say or do”? In a crucial flash of past tense: “I couldn’t do it like you”? This is not a valentine.

It’s a song for one, not for two. This is how Caribou songs have operated since 2011’s masterful Swim. Snaith, who rose to prominence making IDM under the name Manitoba, knows the contours and textures of dance music exceptionally well – his techno side project, Daphni, is nothing to be embarrassed about – but increasingly, he’s subtly, cleverly repurposed the means of the form for other ends. In particular, Snaith is sensitive to repetition, its possibilities and its effects, and with Our Love he knocks repetition further than ever out of club-centric hedonism’s orbit without sabotaging his songs’ sense of groovy propulsion. To the extent that this is dance music, it’s staged in Snaith’s own mind (or that of a character): his finest track to date, Swim’s “Odessa,” climaxed with a cowbell’d-out freakout that collapsed inward from every direction at once, the sort of pandemonium that could bring a crowd to its knees but which doubled as the sonic equivalent of anxiety cresting into panic. Not accidentally, it was delivered in third person, and with every accusation it lobbed at “she,” Snaith seemed a little more unhinged and a little more isolated.

Our Love doesn’t let up in this regard; it’s even more dancefloor-ready than its predecessor, and accordingly it delves to even deeper, more lightless parts of Snaith’s psyche. The title track forgoes the idea of pop structure altogether, which makes it a legitimate banger, but it also means that the echoing cry of “our love” simply floats around the track’s airspace, never making contact disassociated, never describing what we’re hearing. Indeed, the danceability that seems barely relevant to the songs is the only way into them. “Our Love” becomes, by the end of the album, “your love,” and though Snaith says that “Your Love Will Set You Free,” the closing track by that title just modulates the synth hook from the album’s bleakest number, “All I Ever Need,” sealing the record inside of its own closed circuit. “Your love will set you free” is not inclusive of the singer: Snaith’s love, by contrast, is holding him prisoner. Immaculately constructed and gracefully executed, Snaith’s dance-pop is the rare body of work that gets to have it both ways, indulging the excited populism of the form while darkly throwing those same formal conceits into doubt. Snaith accessibly blends elements of U.K. garage, techno, house, IDM, psychedelic pop, and ‘90s-‘00s instrumental hip-hop into a neurotic whole that’s as fun to move to as such a concoction would suggest, but much less comfortable to relate to.

And for some of Our Love, that works. The opening-four song run is the finest unbroken stretch of music on any record Snaith’s made under any moniker; Our Love is worth hearing just for the way the cyclical throb of “Can’t Do Without You” is swept up into the blooming “Silver.” But as it enters its middle stretch, Our Love goes from being the most tightly focused Caribou record to something patchier and less compelling; “Dive” is a segue-quality track that goes on too long, “Julia Brightly” is a dance-y flare-up that’s cut down to segue length, and neither has much of anything to do, musically or thematically, with “Second Chance,” which works in context but still sounds like a tossed-off M83 interlude. “Mars” is a six-minute workout marrying jazz flute to a dry, percussive clatter of a drum track, and it’s a strong track but a bewildering turn. Compared to Swim, which determinedly followed a single line of thought and sound to an uncompromising conclusion, or Andorra, a gorgeous psych-pop pastoral that skewed wider and wider until it felt like Snaith was trying to cram the whole horizon into the nine-minute finale, Our Love has a damagingly short attention span. Its thematic power demands an intensely deliberate approach that the record doesn’t possess; it’s simply not very well-edited. Closer “Your Love Will Set You Free” is astonishing, a minimal shapeshifter with gut-wrenching emotional impact, but the subtext of its reprise of the hook from “All I Ever Need” feels unearned; the record lacks the structural discipline to make its suggestion of inescapable isolation ring true. Our Love turns out to be the opposite: it’s one of Snaith’s least cohesive and affecting full-lengths, even as it provides us with some of his strongest individual tracks to date. B-