Jeff Walker Reviews: Caribou “Suddenly” (Merge)

After five years away, Caribou’s Dan Snaith returns to confront grief and family, beautifully warping songs that are drenched in melody.

Over the past few weeks, I have found myself exploring and listening to music that is, many times, newly discovered due to personal time in pandemic-induced isolation here in Los Angeles. Music is something I use to relax and I listen to as many new releases as I can. Lately, I have found myself listening to artists who set a positive mood that takes my mind off our current global situation and distracts me in a positive way.

Dan Snaith Confronts Grief and Family on “Suddenly”

On this new release, Caribou’s Dan Snaith returns after five years away to confront grief and family, beautifully warping songs that are drenched in melody. Snaith is often regarded as a producer but is essentially a singer-songwriter who happens to work in an electronic medium. Snaith has been at the forefront of IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) which can be best described as “cerebral” and better suited to home listening than to dancing. “Suddenly” is an album drenched in wonderful melodies. Snaith is a good songwriter and he has packed this album with moments more obviously pop facing than anything previously released. “Suddenly” is appropriately titled; it’s not only named after his daughter’s favorite word but it’s also an album that keeps unexpectedly changing course, often in the middle of a track.

Caribou’s Dan Snaith

After emerging in the wake of the ’90s IDM boom with 2001’s “Start Breaking My Heart,” the producer launched himself into a new genre with every release — weirdo psychedelia on 2003’s “Up in Flames,” krautrock on 2005’s “The Milk of Human Kindness,” ’60s pop on 2007’s “Andorra,” and nocturnal club music on his 2010 breakout “Swim,” deconstructing them all and remaking them in his own image.

Deep House Rhythms, Humid Synth Flourishes

In the second decade of the millennium, Snaith seemed to settle down, both musically and personally. Instead of looking outwards for new inspiration, he dug deeper into himself. 2014 album “Our Love,” his first since the birth of his first daughter, was fashioned from the same basic building blocks as “Swim”: deep house rhythms, humid synth flourishes, Snaith’s reedy falsetto. The difference was more thematic, a shift towards the personal. This new release is a pointed, high concept yet deeply felt examination of love in all its many complicated facets.

Snaith’s Voice Injects Real Emotion

The beauty of Caribou is that there are two sides to Dan Snaith. There is Dan Snaith the crate-digging experimentalist with a PhD in mathematics and Dan Snaith the emotional singer-songwriter trying to work through the human experience. “Suddenly” is more interested in touching your heart than moving your feet. The highlight here is Snaith’s voice. He sings on every track besides the brief interlude “Filtered Grand Piano,” and although his voice is often treated as just one more sample that is chopped up and warped, it’s pushed higher in the mix than ever before. As Snaith himself is the first to admit, he isn’t exactly a strong singer — his falsetto is a fragile wisp of a thing, floating above his shifting beats instead of dominating them. His voice is also one of his greatest assets, the beating heart at the center of all the samples and synths, a remarkable instrument capable of injecting real emotion into these songs.

Deeply Felt Songs Inseparable From Their Circumstances

Although there can be sadness found in the lyrics, it’s not a heavy or taxing listen. “Suddenly” is an inward-focused work, but it might also be his most varied. Snaith’s saddest songs are so beautiful and sometimes even euphoric. His voice is so warm that it soothes rather than wallows in the subject matter. “Sister,” the spare synth-lullaby that opens the album, contains a blink-and-you-miss-it recording of Snaith’s mother singing a nursery rhyme to his sister. “You and I” was written for Snaith’s wife’s mother, from her perspective, mourning the loss of her son. “New Jade” is an affirmation to his wife’s sister in the wake of an explosive divorce. And “Magpie” is a touching tribute to his longtime sound engineer Julia Brightly, who passed away shortly before the release of “Our Love.” These songs are deeply felt and inseparable from their circumstances, a way for Snaith to take life’s most painful experiences and turn them into something beautiful for his loved ones and us. Key tracks are “You and I,” “New Jade,” “Home,” and “Never Come Back.”

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