We Will Always Love You / Plunderphonics

Too many times last week I paused my place in The Avalanches’ We Will Always Love You (2020) and crawled out of my dungeon/office/bedroom only to hear my roommate humming along at her own spot in the album. I gave it 8th place on my end of the year list only after listening to it twice through, pushing folklore straight out to honorable mentions.

At first listen, the opening track, “Ghost Story,” messed me up in a way that usually only happens when I re-read lines of Call Me by Your Name. Sinking into my mattress, I stared at my plaster-cracked wall as this woman’s voicemail filled my eyes with tears, perhaps hitting a little too close to home for someone recently out of a long distance relationship. But nevertheless, The Avalanches now had me in complete captivation as We Will Always Love You progressed in waves from this point on.

Earlier this year when The Avalanches dropped their title track, they properly filled a four-year-long void that had been chipping away at all of us. It was exactly what we (I) needed, and after only a minute into “We Will Always Love You,” I was so sure that this melodious masterpiece couldn’t get any better. Until, along came the one and only “Hammond Song,” and I was certain of it—The Avalanches were back.

But when the duo began to release more singles, “Running Red Lights” and “Interstellar Love,” I lost that transcending feeling that “We Will Always Love You” had given me. To me, those tracks were dangerously Coldplay-esq and I was fearful that the incredibly talented musicians might be moving away from the part of their music that made them who they are—plunderphonics.

Plunderphonics—the art of sampling—was never something I knew I needed until I heard Wildflower, The Avalanches’ second album, the summer after my freshman year of college. The scrawny dude in vans across the hall (now one of my closest friends) showed me “Colors”, and I remember my 19 year old self falling in love with this beautiful combination of sounds. It was like I could hear the colors of a sunset, and I didn’t know why. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, and with a little help from Deep Cuts, I later discovered it was owed to plunderphonics.

John Oswald coined this term in his essay/presentation where he explains the art of reusing sound and artistically compiling different samples to create such a noise that is simultaneously erratic yet feels like everything is falling into place. It’s non traditional, and can leave new listeners feeling unsettled because it rebels against the dominant musical structure and subverts all of your learned expectations. It is more than experimental because it can maintain structure while shedding predictability.

At first listen, We Will Always Love You feels adrift from The Avalanches’ plunderphonic-based roots. Their craft in sampling feels more scarce—not quite as overt as is in Wildflower (yo yo dance your pain away). But after a few more listens though, it became clear that the sampling is much subtler, discreetly morphing multiple sounds into one. The album is far from erratic and flows as a cohesive whole while successfully fluctuating through various moods and temperaments; I’d like to be twirling under a disco ball to “Music Makes Me High” (does anyone else hear a faint yell from Kate Bush toward the end?), and crying under a disco ball to “Overcome.” Tracks like these two reaffirm the incredible skill of The Avalanches and their ability to weave together independently beautiful sounds, and morph them into an unexpected masterpiece. Despite my disappointment in “Reflecting Light” (you sample Vashti Bunyan and this is what you come up with??), and the ick in the Coldplay-esq tracks, the lower points of the record for me were always followed up with sounds that hit in all the right places.

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