Way back in 2010, I was working freelance for a publication that asked me what my three favourite albums of the year were. One of them was particularly obvious: I couldn’t not pick the final album by LCD Soundsystem, otherwise known as the biggest middle finger given to mainstream record labels for some time. While I had a hard time picking my third favourite album, the title of second place almost immediately went to Caribou’s Swim, perhaps one of the best (if not the best) dance album of the past five years (again, SBTRKT, I apologize for maligning you twice within the space of two reviews).
Swim was not, at least to me, an ordinary dance record. It had its moments of classic house on the likes of ‘Sun’ but also held within it a dark heart, producing the eerie ‘Odessa’ and the sensitive, melancholic tones of ‘Kaili,’ still perhaps the most underrated song Caribou have ever produced. Much like Flying Lotus, Caribou’s Dan Snaith has spent the best part of his career cobbling together elements from disparate genres and smashing them together into something most would define as dance music. Admittedly, sometimes this has meant trying to squash round pegs into square holes but Snaith has always managed to come out of the other side of his experiments smelling of roses.
Our Love presents something of a different proposition. Whether it’s the fact that Snaith has become a father or the influence of his short time producing work with Daphni, the Canadian producer seems to have settled into a definite groove that sees him producing clever dance music with all the steely determination of an academic in the National Archives. Little is left of the slightly melancholic 60s pop that inflected The Milk of Human Kindness and the Polaris Prize-winning Andorra and many of the peaks and troughs in tone that punctuated Swim have been smoothed over to create a refined, tantalising vision into Snaith’s own personal world.
At times, it’s difficult not to listen to Our Love without thinking of its predecessor, with which it shares many facets. On the surface, it’s a perfectly palatable record that appears to offer little in the way of deviation from standard dance norms. There are the usual rhythms and beats, the looping vocals, a tendency to place the occasional smattering of house synth in there… But digging a little deeper reveals some emotional depths to Our Love that are carved from the minute details Snaith inserts into each song. There’s something decidedly off-kilter about every track that keeps you on your toes.
Take lead single ‘Can’t Do Without You.’ At first listen, it’s a song that has more in common with Daphni’s work than the grabbing lyrical content and unique hooks that gave Swim its glittering singles. On closer listen, ‘Can’t Do Without You’ is surprisingly dynamic and this becomes particularly apparent on headphones. Snaith fiddles tirelessly with volume and mixing levels, creating texture to the song that pushes and pulls specific elements into the foreground and background. Occasionally, the gloom-ridden synth is prominent, adding a touch of familiar melancholy to the track, while at other times the beats seem to dominate. It’s this kind of production that makes Our Love the most intimate of Caribou’s records. It feels more at home being listened to alone on headphones than in the club, where on paper it is destined to thrive.
Caribou, though, has never been a project that has been completely comfortable with the whole dance scene. If Caribou were invited to a house party, Snaith and company would be the ones hanging out in the kitchen. So while ‘Can’t Do Without You’ and the title track can nestle in-between bangers on the DJ set with relative ease (albeit by sacrificing the attention to detail that makes these tracks special), much of Our Love is far too slow and meditative for it to be considered a ‘pure’ house record.
Some of this has much to do with the presence of Snaith’s good friend Owen Pallett, who provides arrangements on the title track, ‘Silver’ and closer ‘Love Will Set You Free.’ Pallett lends a gorgeous string outro to ‘Our Love,’ a track that already spends four minutes building up to its explosive strobe-lit crescendo. On ‘Silver’ and ‘Love Will Set You Free,’ Pallett’s arrangements lend a kind of airy lightness to proceedings that help to give the album some much-needed tonal light and shade.
Something Snaith takes almost complete control of on this record, though, is his own voice. On the earliest Caribou records, Snaith came across as the reluctant vocalist. Even on Swim, which contains some of Caribou’s most lyrical tracks, there was an almost extreme hesitancy to his vocal performance. On Our Love, Snaith seems to be bursting with new-found confidence. He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a perfect singer, nor does he strive to be. There’s always a wobble in his tones, always a slightly cracking that demonstrates his own imperfections. This, however, only adds to the humanity of the tracks. On an album that is refined and polished to a loving shine, Snaith’s vocals stand out as a reminder of the very human force behind the machine. Snaith’s acceptance of his imperfections simply help Our Love to blossom as a loving tribute to the ups and downs of being human.
Conceptually, Our Love is undoubtedly the most tightly-focused of any Caribou LP. Sonically, it is often mesmerising thanks to its production and the attention to detail. By refining the quirks of Swim and combining this with the more standard dance conventions employed with Daphni, Snaith has managed to create what could possibly go down as his best album. If Caribou never make another record, Our Love will stand as a testament to the ever-changing and constantly improving sound that the band forged through their career. Of course, Snaith is too musically productive to abandon his main project. As such, he’s left himself a lot of work to try and improve on what many are calling his masterwork.