‘Antisocialites’ by Alvvays is a hermetic serenade
Mike Donovan | Friday, September 15, 2017
The torrential snowfall reduces most of the shapes to a blank slate, but through the blizzard you can still make out a few. Downtown Toronto’s angles and curves burst through the white spontaneously, then quickly fade. The skyline — a sleek and beautiful array of modern invention — has broken down to abstraction, a wistful tease of random images.
You awkwardly tug the hood of your parka over your oversized headphones and trudge down the street, each step sinking your unseasonable canvas shoes into a waterlogged state of disrepair. Frostbite seems a forgone conclusion. But none of this matters to you. The waveforms pulsating into your headphones — the sounds of Alvvays’ sophomore LP “Antisocialites” — have stripped you from the Toronto streets and locked you in a psychological hermitage.
Jim Reid’s arc — the referential centerpiece of the track “Lollipop (Ode to Jim)”— helps us position “Antisocialites” within indie-rock’s canonical framework. “Psychocandy” (1985), Reid’s first album with The Jesus and Mary Chain, immerses infectious bubblegum pop under thick, intrusive layers of aural fudge, knocking both audiences and critics senseless. Twenty-nine years later, Alvvays released its own collection of fuzzy, bubblegum dream pop, sending the indie-rock community into a frenzy. Both bands found themselves on a pedestal, facing the expectation of being the standard bearers of their respective genres. Both must cope with the overwhelming shadow that their respective breakthrough singles (The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey” and Alvvays’ “Archie, Marry Me”) will undoubtedly cast on all future releases.
Many bands, when placed in this precarious position, drop the ball on their sophomore effort (see: The Stone Roses’ “Second Coming”). Other, truly virtuosic acts ride their fame upwards to musical apotheosis (see: My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless”). But Reid and his spiritual twin, Alvvays frontwoman Molly Rankin, follow a middle path. “Darklands” and “Antisocialites” — their respective sophomore records — refine their indie-pop roots without reaching for anything new. “We were hoping [“Alvvays” and “Antisocialites”] could sit side-by side-together, but still have a slight fidelity leap,” Rankin told Brooklyn Magazine. She, like Reid back in the ’80s, simply wants to write better pop songs.
The impact of “Antisocialites,” however, exceeds its status as a glossier “Alvvays.” The record’s musical and lyrical departures transport the listener to a new lovelorn destination. “Alvvays,” with its airy lo-fi guitar swells and deadpan vocal delivery, came straight from the cozy Newfoundland coastal towns in which the band members grew up. It was, like the young band, hopeful and unkempt. “Antisocialites” trades the fuzzy, deadpan style of “Alvvays” for synthesizers and vocal fluidity to reflect Toronto’s shiny urbanity as well as the band’s maturing outlook.
The album’s early tracks invest wholeheartedly in the urban landscape, often criticizing the naivete of past locales. On “Not My Baby,” Rankin defiantly declares: “No need to turn around and see what’s behind me / […] Because I’m really not there,” lyrically placing her stake in the soft soil of closure. The heartrending synth and guitar melodies in the background, though, tell a different story — one of sadness and reluctance. The questions inherent to the harmonic undertones on “Not My Baby” come to a head on the next track, “Hey,” when Rankin asks “Have you lost your sense of place?” of a protagonist found “Blind drunk in an alleyway.”
On the record’s B-side, the A-side’s subtle doubts develop into a full-on lamentation of urbanity.
The hook-laden “Saved by a Waif” captures the emotional implications of the band’s geological transition. “New Saturday / In the park, didn’t think you fell that hard,” Rankin sings of her protagonist, Adrian, who finds himself on a bend to “Say something, waste something / Change [his] life.” He looks for safety in “a waif and the weight [of his] wayfarers,” probably because it reminds him of past joys. Adrian then cuts his hair such that he “look[s] like a little boy once more” and chases nostalgia.
Similarly, above the spare, guitar driven sobriety of “Already Gone,” Rankin wonders whether, “If there were an ocean,” she’d “be wading into the distance” — even though she doesn’t think she “will ever find it again.”
The woefully direct ballad “Forget About Life” concludes the album with a painfully beautiful catharsis. It celebrates separation from the confusion of transition and the misery of social interaction. It returns the listener to the space between his or her ears, beneath the hood of the parka, ankle-deep in the slush, on the windy Toronto streets.
“Antisocialites” is also the hot bowl of udon, or the delicious taco, at the end of the icy street — comfort food for the hermetic urbanite.
Favorite Track: “Forget About Life”
If you like: The Jesus and Mary Chain, Shop Assistants, The Pastels
Shamrocks: 4 out of 5