Review: Alvvays, 'Antisocialites'
Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.
On "Archie, Marry Me," the highlight calling-card from Alvvays' 2014 debut, the Toronto band hit upon its signature formula. Amid crisp guitars, effervescent melodies and summery refrains, the song finds lead singer Molly Rankin yearning for romantic contentment with a marriage-averse partner. Dig deeper, and it's deceptively more nuanced. As Rankin, the band's primary songwriter, delivers a frustrated relationship-status ultimatum for commitment, she also confronts her own swirl of conflicting motives and outside expectations.
It's hard not to think back to those intimate shades between love and heartache in "Archie" when hearing where Alvvays picks up on its new album, Antisocialites. Whether autobiographical or fictional, the album's lead track "In Undertow" represents a darker spiritual sequel. Retracing her steps after a breakup, Rankin opens, "You find a wave and try to hold on for as long as you can / You made a mistake you'd like to erase and I understand," hinting at the fissures that grew too deep to mend. "There's no turning back after what's been said." Then, as she steels herself, she lilts, "We toss and turn in undertow, time to let go."
Rankin has described Antisocialites as a "fantasy breakup arc" and throughout, Alvvays follows that thread through vignettes that depict anger, depression, resignation and finally self-reliance. The sleek and gauzy "Dreams Tonite" ponders whether two lovers would still be attracted to each other if they met now ("Is it so naïve to wonder if I saw you on the street would I have you in my dreams tonite?") before asking how the spark fizzled: "Who starts a fire just to let it go out?... Who builds a wall just to let it fall down?" Later on "Not My Baby," Rankin alludes to the lifting of a suffocating weight, admitting "Now that you're not my baby, I feel alive for the first time since I don't know how long."
While heavy, Alvvays songs are rarely overbearing, particularly when the band undercuts the melodrama with irreverent wordplay or self-deprecation. On "Plimsoll Punks" (a reference to Television Personalities' "Part-Time Punks") Rankin wields a sharp tongue as she brushes off shallow people who self-righteously pick away at one's self worth: "When I chip through your candy coating you're stuffed with insulation," Rankin declares. "You're the seashell in my sandal that's slicing up my heel."
After years of touring Alvvays' self-titled debut, Rankin sought to recharge and escape, retreating to Toronto Island where she worked in an abandoned classroom and tapped into a solitary mindset. Later she regrouped with the rest of the band — keyboardist Kerri MacLellan, bassist Brian Murphy and guitarist Alec O'Hanley — in Los Angeles and later in their Toronto basement to finish recording. On Antisocialites, the band's interplay has never been stronger: listen to how Rankin's tactile buzzy strums interlock with O'Hanley's vibrant pling of arpeggios; or how MacLellan's analog pads and glitzy hooks bloom into cascading crescendos.
Alvvays is at its most explosive on "Hey," when O'Hanley's fuzzed-out guitar and MacLellan's careening tempos give voice the destructive behavior of Rankin's alter-ego, "Molly Mayhem." Elsewhere, "Lollipop (Ode To Jim)" (which name-drops Jesus and Mary Chain's Jim Reid) and "Your Type" recount surreal nights in altered states with bristling guitar twang and dissonant outbursts that punctuate delightfully sinister kiss-off lines like "Let me state delicately you're an O and I'm an AB."
Yet for all the noisy textures and shimmering sing-alongs on Antisocialites, Alvvays seem intent on masking pain while convincing others, and perhaps themselves, that everything's fine. It's a tricky balancing act, but that's what makes this band so damn endearing.