THE UNDERDOGS: The Avalanches’ ‘Wildflower’

A column about underrated albums that didn’t get their due.

Nostalgia can, and should be, used for something more than escapism. The Avalanches did just that on Wildflower.

Released July 1, 2016—three years ago today—the Australian electronic group’s second album was a seismic event, coming a full 16 years after their legendary first album, Since I Left You. Yet for all its initial critical praise, Wildflower has fallen out of the conversation. Given our #throwbackthursday era, how is this so?

Perhaps the album is cursed by comparisons to its predecessor, an idiosyncratic plunderphonic masterpiece that has deservedly entered the canon as one of the most iconic electronic albums of all time.

The 16 years between Since I Left You and Wildflower account for more or less of a full generation. During that time, the members suffered their share of health issues and unfinished projects. The buzz around a second album started as early as 2006 and never stopped building.

Perhaps it’s a matter of timing. In 2016, we saw the release of A Seat at the Table, Blonde, Coloring Book, Lemonade and We Got It From Here. This album may have simply gotten lost in the undeniably impressive shuffle. (Personally, 2016 was the year I finally admitted to myself that indie rock had lost its prominence from the decade before.)

Perhaps, for all its familiarity, Wildflower was somewhat lost on listeners. Band member Robbie Chater even described Wildflower as a road trip taken while on LSD. The description makes sense—these songs don’t transition so much as melt and morph into each other. The off-kilter “Frankie Sinatra,” featuring drug-soaked lyrics rapped by Danny Brown and MF DOOM, is sandwiched in-between songs glistening in ’70s R&B and disco. Later, we hear hip-hop legend Biz Markie enthusiastically rap about Cheerios and Captain Crunch.

Since I Left You: Part II this is not.

But direct comparison is unfair and perhaps irrelevant. These are two sample-driven albums, sure, but their effects are created in distinct ways. The samples of Since I Left You work like building blocks—each one meticulously placed in an effort to create something new. It’s hard not to listen to the climaxes on tracks like “Close To You” and “Live At Dominoes” and not be left in gob-smacking awe.

On Wildflower, however, the samples tug at something that already exists: our collective and individual sense of nostalgia. The samples mostly come from ’60s/’70s psych rock, R&B and disco. “Because I’m Me” samples Honey Cone’s 1971 hit “Want Ads,” while “Subways” samples disco composed by the Gibb brothers (you know, the Bee Gees). Even John Lennon and Paul McCartney get nods through the use of “Come Together” and “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” Even if we weren’t alive during this era, we can identify its music without fail.

Meanwhile, the sound clips are more effective at evoking our personal moments of childhood. Take the interlude “Zap!,” where a sunny harmonica slowly gives way to a radio DJ telling us “You gotta wake up, no arguing!” Throughout the album are clips of kids playing, laughing and pranking each other. At times, it’s easy to get lost in your own experience.

However, the Avalanches never keep you there for long. New and established artists alike perform original material, including Camp Lo (“Because I’m Me”), Toro Y Moi (“If I Was A Folkstar”) and Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue (“Colours,” “Kaleidoscopic Lovers”). For all its influences and sampling, Wildflower is very much an album of its own time.

Take the joyous track “Harmony,” which jumps into “Live A Lifetime Love.” The later features the rap duo A.Dd+, whose lyrics include: 

I grew up, I screw up
I do a little too much, they call me advanced
And now they just call the police
Cause I’m 23 and black and won’t pull up my pants

There’s a lot to unpack, but the bait-and-switch is perfect: nostalgia, however pleasant, isn’t necessarily instructive in dealing with the present.

I’d be lying I said Wildflower is the Avalanches’ better album. It’s not. The album’s latter third loses steam, much like the comedown from an acid trip. But that’s okay. In a time where social media makes it easy to get stuck in your own memory loop, Wildflower is a refreshing listen. It’s an album that uses nostalgia to create something familiar yet unmistakably original.

Nevertheless, Wildflower was worth the wait.

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