When it comes to lowered expectations in pop, there probably isn’t a better candidate than the Avalanches’ third record. The Australian EDM combo’s debut, Since I Left You, took the art of constructing music out of samples to a heightened level of craft; that patchwork quilt of music was one of 2000’s kickiest albums. Nearly two decades passed before we heard from the Avalanches again, and when we did, time seemed to have passed them by: 2016’s Wildflower was a far less satisfying grab-bag of voices, sound effects and beats without a remotely coherent center. Their sonic-stitchwork approach suddenly felt like a relic from another time.
But if that album felt like the world’s most jumbled playlist, We Will Always Love You has, as they say, a better algorithm. Now reduced to a duo of Robert Chater and Anthony Diblasi, the Avalanches are still dedicated crate-diggers, unearthing obscure oldies at every turn. But this time, they go lighter on the samples and heavier on post-trip hop soundscapes and contemporary singers, making for recombinant pop that feels joyfully seamless and organic.
According to the duo, the album has a recurring theme based around “light,” “the cosmos” and astronomer Carl Sagan (of Cosmos fame). Following that through-line is only slightly more challenging than deciphering the plot of Quadrophenia, but there’s no denying that a sense of celestial lightness and aural beauty holds the record together. Take “Interstellar Love,” which uses a sample of the Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky.” But it’s Leon Bridges’ yearning vocal and the Avicii-style EDM-pop groove that truly stand out. In “Reflecting Light,” Sananda Maitreya, formerly known as Terence Trent D’Arby, chews over his “struggles with addiction” alongside a sample of cult British folkie Vashti Bunyan, while “We Will Always Love You” finds Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, going full-on mumble-core (“Draped in monotony/What’s my life gotten me?”). As if reassuring him, the Roches, the fabled singing acid-folk sisters, are heard in a sample singing the title phrase from their classic “Hammond Song.”
In the past, pairings like these would have felt cheeky, even gimmicky. But perhaps due to factors like Chater’s recent stint in rehab, the Avalanches are clearly in search of music and emotions deeper and more thoughtful than before, and these meditative creations are their answer. Later in the record, emotions turn even more naked and chilling: In “Dial D for Devotion,” Karen O recites a few lyrics (“The light of my life is going out tonight/Without a flicker of regret’) from the late indie-rock singer-songwriter David Berman of the Silver Jews, who committed suicide last year.
These boys still want to have fun, and they find it in modern, light-on-its-feet disco fashioned from new and old sources. “Music Makes Me High” is built around a gospel choir and a snippet of a beyond-rare disco track by Seventies Southern act Salty Miller, while “Oh the Sunn!,” featuring guest crooner Perry Farrell, dances on air; close your eyes and you can almost imagine John Travolta dancing to it at the 2001 Odyssey Disco.
Two of the album’s best pieces arrive from its least likely sources — namely, alt-rock. Rivers Cuomo has rarely sounded less ironic and more unaffected than he does on “Running Red Lights,” which sets his yearning to frothy bubblegum EDM. Likewise, MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser, along with a subtly tucked-in Shirelles sample, turn “The Divine Chord” into earnest yacht-disco.
Some of the hook-ups don’t work as well as expected. Tricky sounds strangely muted on one of his two contributions, “Until Daylight Comes,” and a promising matchup of Neneh Cherry and the xx’s Jamie xx on “Wherever You Go” results in a spacey, echoey piece that drags on too long, even when Jamie xx ups the BPMs halfway through. But in the post-Trump world, We Will Always Love You may be the soundtrack we need — one that builds a bridge between people, emotions and eras.