Dan Snaith’s career is a powerful argument for making things up as you go along. Looking back over his past 15 years of activity, none of the moves he’s made have followed logically from any given development (a funny state of affairs for an artist who trained as a mathematician). He started out crafting quietly inventive, modestly scaled electronic music for home listening, and then, as his chops improved and his popularity grew, he reinvented his solo project, Caribou, as a full band with a propensity for full-throttle psychedelic jams. Once he brought that energy into the studio for 2007′s Andorra, he turned around and repurposed Caribou as a starry-eyed indie-dance project with 2010′s Swim. It was at that point that he feinted left and took up a second career as an idiosyncratic club DJ, playing eight-hour sets that ranged from Afrobeat to Sun Ra to techno. And as he began to amass a sizable collection of self-produced edits and rough-hewn club cuts to play out under his Daphni alias, he spun them into their own album, 2012′s Jiaolong. With Our Love, his cheerfully freeform trajectory leads him back to Caribou’s sweet spot: that inimitable fusion of burbling synthesizers, rippling drum grooves, and bright, optimistic melodies expressed in that husky falsetto of his.
He lays all his cards out on the table with the opening song, “Can’t Do Without You,” which translates the quotidian reality of grownup romance to the more universal terms of the festival sing-along. Looping the titular phrase in wistful counterpoint over swelling chords and barebones drumming, it’s a simple thing — less a full-blown treatise on married life than a heart scrawled on a rose-tinted Post-it and left on the dining room table. It doesn’t say much because it doesn’t really need to. And while it’s certainly a highlight of the 10-song, 43-minute LP, it’s a measure of the record’s strength that it frequently goes uphill from there.
“Silver” has a Boards of Canada vibe, thanks to its chirping vocal sample, meditative hip-hop beat, and expressive layers of swollen, trembling synthesizer. Then, with “All I Ever Need” and “Our Love,” it’s back to the pacing and mood of the opener, balancing hazy melancholy with house tempos and crisply skipping drums. Together, they make the album’s second highlight, a one-two punch: the former threads the perky cadences of early-’80s freestyle through the kind of analog signal chain utilized by Aphex Twin on his recent Syro; the latter makes excellent use of U.K. club music’s shuddering bass lines.
Snaith has said that he listened to a lot of contemporary hip-hop and R&B while making Our Love. The album didn’t end up bearing much trace of rap’s crisp, buzzing digitalism, but you can hear its influence on the bass-heavy “Dive,” a two-minute sketch that sounds like it’s waiting for a singer like Kelela to pick it up and run with it. On “Second Chance,” the singer Jessy Lanza makes good on that potential, infusing the song with a breathy sort of downcast soul that’s new to Caribou’s music.
That’s as far from Caribou’s wheelhouse as the album ventures, and in some ways, Snaith is retracing his steps on the rest of the record — especially in “Julia Brightly,” a skippy club cut that cuts short after just two minutes, and the closing “Your Love Will Set You Free,” which transposes the melody of “All I Ever Need” and turns it into a wispy, psychedelic coda. But two of the album’s finest moments also happen in this final stretch. One of them is “Mars,” a thrumming percussive workout — overlaid with an airy flute melody and squalls of dub delay — that recalls the focused club energies of his Daphni project. The other is “Back Home,” a bittersweet ballad that begins with little more than drifting synths and halting vocals and then, halfway through, explodes with fat, cascading drums and attention-grabbing vocal hooks; it sounds almost like Caribou’s version of Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.”
The first time I heard “Back Home,” it occurred to me that its beatless passages would make excellent fodder for amateur remixers to rework as they wish, just as they did with Swim‘s “Sun.” (“There were so many remixes,” Snaith told The Fader, marveling at the way the song spread across SoundCloud — a set of unauthorized takes to which he eventually gave his blessing.) And then I wondered if he left the song as uncluttered as he did as a kind of invitation for his fans to fill in the rest. Why not? Snaith has said he wants listeners to experience Our Love as though he were sitting right beside them, making the music for and even with them.
That’s an unconventional tack for an album steeped in club music, but then, Our Love‘s grownup take on love — muted, sober, built on trust — isn’t quite conventional, either. But bucking convention has gotten Snaith this far, and as a result, Caribou sounds more vital than ever.