Review Summary: Cue the sad, electric violins.
With the release of Wildflower, The Avalanches’ first record in over 15 years, there was always the worry that it wouldn’t live up to the standard set by their universally-praised debut. Whether or not that album did much for you personally, the general consensus was that it succeeded in being (at the very least) a decent comeback record. A sentiment that I agree with. Personally, I believe time has been rather kind to Wildflower. Four years later, I still find myself listening to it quite a bit.
However, I knew deep down that the follow-up would be a bit different than what I was expecting. It’s practically cliché to make note of the fact that any media that re-appears after a long hiatus, whether music, movies, or television, tries to play it safe at the very beginning before trying something new. New, at least, for the people making it. Usually, these shifts in direction involve following modern trends and styles that other artists have already pioneered and perfected in their long absence. And We Will Always Love You, for the most part, feels a lot like that. Like a big game of ‘catch-up’ for the production duo of Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi. The two, presumably after hearing some newer styles of house and dance, decided to give those styles a half-hearted spin for themselves. And the result, is yet another reunion album stuck in purgatory, struggling between old comforts and new experiments.
The standard building blocks of the Avalanches sound are still here, of course: sampling, interconnected tracks, and a psychedelic/disco sound. However, the production on the album is very hit-or-miss. A strange criticism to be lobbing at veteran producers like The Avalanches, but it’s the truth. Tracks like “Wherever You Go” end up sounding dizzyingly unfocused, spreading itself way too thin between two vocalists (Neneh Cherry and CLYPSO) and producer Jamie xx. “Take Care in Your Dreaming’s” dull instrumentals and beat clash wildly with the three guest vocalists. “Reflecting Light” pairs up Sananda Maitreya and Vashti Bunyan in a track that somehow manages to do no favors for either artist, with the overpowering instrumental mix distracting from their performances. Really, all of the features on We Will Always Love You end up doing very little to bolster these tracks. On Wildflower, I remember not particularly enjoying the features very much either, but on this, they range from inconsequential to outright unfitting. Only adding on to the problems, half of We Will Always Love You’s runtime is taken up by moodier, more atmospheric (and quite honestly, more generic sounding) pieces, which pairs poorly with the dense, wall-to-wall mixing.
All that said, the few bright spots on We Will Always Love You are genuinely good. “Oh the Sunn!,” the eponymous “We Will Always Love You,” and the lovely disco track “The Divine Chord” are all highlights in my eyes. Unfortunately, despite all their efforts, the duo still seems to be much more comfortable taking cues from themselves and reverting to SILY-isms. Songs like the high-energy “Music Makes Me High” and the funky “Born to Lose” make this fact abundantly clear.
It is also made clear that this was The Avalanches’ attempt at throwing off their status as highly regarded “plunderphonics disco dance music” producers and make a slightly more conventional release. And, in some respects, they’ve succeeded. But in the process, the group ends up sounding ever closer to becoming standard artsy pop/R&B producers. Which begs the question: what separates The Avalanches from the litany of other acts out there now, other than the faint hints of their past sound strewn about this album? Listening to We Will Always Love You, I’m not sure I really know.