On 'Blue Rev,' Alvvays finds euphoria in noise
It takes just six seconds into the first song on its latest album for Alvvays to pull a new trick out of its sleeve. For a moment, "Pharmacist" feels like what it is: a long-awaited reunion with these Canadian noise pop purveyors on their small-town home turf, a few muted synth notes and a preset drum machine tick-tocking while Molly Rankin sighs, "I know you're back, I saw your sister at..." right up until the moment that a swirl of noise rises in the mix to meet and nearly envelop her voice and you can barely make out a syllable.
A shift of emphasis from text to texture could be purely aesthetic — a snarl of noise from a band that had already perfected its tidy balance of distorted guitars and finely observed, sometimes spiky lyrics and melodies. But the members of Alvvays, who took five years to make the exhilarating new album Blue Rev, deploy distortion with the same care that Rankin has always written lyrics. These are 14 zippy songs that echo in your brain long after they end, largely thanks to the group's ability to repeatedly knock reliable song machinery into a woozy disequilibrium.
If you heard the wry anti-establishment-but-pro-commitment anthem "Archie, Marry Me" on a college or public radio rock station nearly a decade ago or on an indie pop playlist compiled by a major streaming service since; or if you fell in love with the group's second album, Antisocialites, a nearly perfect collection of songs that embodies that post-quarterlife impulse to opt out of societal expectations, the relative cacophony of Blue Rev first hits the ear as if it's in competition with the clarity of Rankin's storytelling. But the ongoing push and pull between her voice and the noise that sometimes swells to surround it builds a euphoric heaviness. The effect is like a slowly rising tide or a shift in atmospheric pressure; a signal of an encroaching threat or maybe just a weight of accumulated responsibility that changes you as you bear it.
When I spoke with Rankin on the phone from Toronto during the week leading up to the release of Blue Rev, she insisted that the goal in turning up the distortion was not to give the band's sound "a face lift." Instead, she and and fellow guitarist Alec O'Hanley — also her partner and co-songwriter — took the time afforded by isolation during the pandemic to lean into a fondness they share for what she calls "woozy, bendy guitars," in particular the "relentless bending note" that runs throughout the Teenage Fanclub song "Everything Flows," which she called "sort of my favorite sound."
"I've always valued the dynamic and the conversation between Alec's guitar and my vocal," Rankin said. In the making of the new album, though, she wanted to find a new balance, which started with the guitars challenging her voice. "But there's a lot of belting on the record. It's not like I disappeared."
Unlike My Bloody Valentine's immersive swirl or Low's recent existential swan dive into oversaturation and static, Blue Rev isn't awash in noise. Instead, nearly every song gets roughed up in its own distinct way, and Rankin, at the center of the storm, braces herself and pushes back. "After The Earthquake" is a chiming sprint that surveys the wreckage of a recent catastrophe, with impressionistic details — the voice of Angela Lansbury spilling out of a nearby television "drowned out by the sound of the racket in the hall" — piling up so quickly that what lingers is a feeling of adrenalized disorientation. "Very Online Guy," a takedown of a creep who is "only one photo, one follow, one filter away," begins with a keyboard line that's simultaneously dorky and sinister, then runs Rankin's voice through effects that drown it out or set it within an echo chamber. On "Pressed," she sings, "Not long ago you read to me pedantic poetry and I would smile" over a breakneck riff that is the best imaginable argument for fearlessly co-opting Johnny Marr's signature guitar sound. The superball bounce of "Pomeranian Spinster" will make you believe that an elderly dog lover who would rather not hear your thoughts about the run in her tights is the last living punk.
In her ability to observe and skewer manners, the lyric writer Rankin reminds me most of is James Mercer, especially his early Shins and Flake Music songs. Like those, Alvvays songs have always been weightlessly melodic, but Rankin increasingly writes and sings image-rich sentence fragments that seem not to end; they circle back on themselves or make logical leaps or pile up like a late night conversation between friends or a rant that loses its own sense of internal logic to a cresting emotional tide. For a musician raised in a coastal region in the era of threatening seas, it's no wonder Rankin has a sensitivity to the way familiarity can be threatened by impending cataclysm.
Speaking of the music industry... the fact that Blue Rev sounds like so many records from the time of the compact disc's ascendancy but was born into our era of abundant streaming is, from the perspective of a listener who searched used CD bins for months to find a copy of the first My Bloody Valentine album less than a decade after its release, something like a minor blessing. In 2022, we can easily take the privilege of having a career's worth of songs at our fingertips for granted, but we shouldn't. After swimming in Blue Rev, I went spiraling back through Alvvays' compact, immediate and consistently satisfying catalog, where songs I've loved for years sounded newly ebullient, or tragic, or wistful in ways that marked tragedy as the end of an arc that began in ebullience.
Listen closely to "Belinda Says," one of the new album's most emotionally forceful songs, and you can hear the carefree sailing of "Archie, Marry Me" collapse into a story of uncautious young love that can't manage to steer away from the rocks. For most of the song, Rankin's voice has to fight to stay audible above raging, roiling guitars until, in the bridge, the noise falls away and she sings, with soft uncertainty, "Moving to the country / gonna have this baby / see how it goes / see how it grows." It's a pinnacle of the band's dynamic new method, an almost-Alice Munro-like narrative that shows how weighty decisions — even ones that uphold personal morals and preferences — refine the boundlessness of a life into a reality whose proportions are devastatingly narrow, even when joy is close at hand.
"Now that we've passed through many mirrors," Rankin sings at one point on the new album, "I can't believe we're still the same." Alvvays has changed and it hasn't. It's not wrong to call Blue Rev a breakthrough, but the album doesn't stand apart from the band's catalog — it deepens it.