Caribou: Suddenly review – perfectly imperfect pop

(City Slang)
Dan Snaith’s project returns after five years away to confront grief and family, beautifully warping songs that are drenched in melody

Some artists’ careers seem to progress according to a carefully calculated plan, and there are others whose career seems to progress as a result of happy accidents and unexpected outcomes. Dan Snaith, who records as Caribou and Daphni, belongs firmly in the latter category. In the early 00s, he started out making critically acclaimed electronica that variously tilted towards psychedelia, krautrock and the wistful techno of Boards of Canada; he did it while studying for a PhD in pure mathematics, which added to its cerebral, rarefied air. There were artists who seemed less likely than Snaith to release an Ibiza-approved dancefloor banger, but they largely resided in the realms of funeral doom metal and musique concrète.

This made it a surprise to everyone – including Snaith – when Sun, a track from 2010’s Swim, became an Ibiza-approved dancefloor banger. To compound his amazement further, Caribou unexpectedly went from being a live act who played small venues to audiences that seemed not unlike Snaith himself – a self-described “music nerdy-type person” – to a reliably festival-rousing draw. He described Swim’s follow-up, Our Love, as “mind-numbingly straightforward”. It was anything but – wildly unconventional and dealing in subtleties and weird juxtapositions, which didn’t stop it making the UK Top 10.

Listen to Never Come Back from new album Suddenly

That was five years ago: Snaith’s return to the Caribou name comes accompanied by the suggestion that he’s moved away from what he considers commerciality. Well, perhaps.

Suddenly is obviously a very personal album. It sets out its lyrical stall with Sister, on which Snaith apologises to his sibling for some past transgression and promises to change (“You’ve heard broken promises, I know,” he adds, glumly), while a recording of his mother singing a nursery rhyme, taped during their childhood, weaves in and out of the twinkling electronic backdrop. There are umpteen stark references to loss and grief and struggle – “You can take your place up in the sky,” he sings on You and I, “I will find a way to get on down here” – the evident turbulence of recent years in Snaith’s family life tempered by professions of undying love.

Throughout, Suddenly pushes Snaith’s voice to the forefront, frequently without reverb or any of the other effects applied as standard to vocals: it feels like he’s singing directly into your ear. You could suggest that’s a risky strategy – Snaith’s voice is fragile, untutored and unshowy, the diametric opposite of the kind of melodramatic firework display that’s usually held to constitute Good Singing in 2020 – but it turns out remarkably impactful. You don’t realise how accustomed your ears have become to Auto-Tuned perfection until you hear someone who actually sounds like a human being rather than a cyborg programmed to perform vocal calisthenics: it hits you emotionally in a way that melismatic feats of strength and endurance simply don’t.

But Suddenly is also drenched in wonderful melodies – behind the bedroom-bound sonic boffin image, Snaith is a really good songwriter – and packed with moments more obviously pop-facing than anything previously released. The opening of Never Come Back sounds like something you might hear on Radio 1 sandwiched between Dua Lipa and Khalid. Like I Loved You might be the most straightforwardly beautiful song Snaith has ever written, while Ravi offers up uncomplicated, skippily joyous filter house.

The album cover for Suddenly.
The album cover for Suddenly. Photograph: Publicity im

The operative word here is moments. Suddenly is appropriately named: it’s an album that keeps unexpectedly changing course, often in the middle of a track. Like I Loved You swiftly succumbs to what might be Suddenly’s signature sound: letting the music – in this case an ornate, proggy guitar figure – warp out of time and pitch, as if someone’s pressing their finger down on a record as it plays. It’s disorientating and woozy and it happens again and again: to the sweet, tumbling piano figure that opens Sunny’s Time, to the arpeggiated synths that run through the closing Cloud Song and to the entire chorus of You and I, which shifts the song’s mood from cosseting warmth to uncertainty. Elsewhere, Lime sounds like three completely different songs cut-and-shunted into one, while New Jade starts out scattered and chaotic – looped samples of R&B vocals clashing with a mesh of off-key sounds – before pulling itself together into a beautiful chorus. The album’s highlight, Home, is built from samples of Gloria Barnes’s exquisite 1971 soul track of the same name, but they crash roughly against each other, turning the romantic ache of the original into something more uneasy. In its new context, Barnes’s profession of love – “Baby I’m home, I’m home” – sounds eerily like someone’s last words.

The overall effect is to continually pull the rug out from underneath the listener, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out what Snaith’s driving at: life has a habit of not turning out as you expect. Neither has his career, but as Suddenly underlines, it’s ended up somewhere exciting: in a niche of its own, where electronic auteur meets singer-songwriter, where an innate feel for pop music and the dancefloor co-exists with experimentation.

What Alexis listened to this week

The Magnetic Fields – Kraftwerk In A Blackout

From the forthcoming album of deliberately short songs, Quickies, Kraftwerk in a Blackout is classic Stephin Merritt: beautiful melody, mordantly funny.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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