At this point in Dan Snaith’s career, the most shocking thing he could do is overtly repeat himself. Snaith’s interest in polychromatic explosions of swirling psychedelia has been the sole through line in his work (well, that and amazing percussion) since the days he was allowed to call his act Manitoba. 2003’s Up in Flames was perhaps the most complete exploration of that aforementioned sound. 2005’s The Milk of Human Kindness retained that approach for about a third of its length, but Snaith chose to fill in the remainder with Neu-esque kraut-rock experiments and the occasional left-field diversion into hip-hop-infused electronica. The most recent Caribou album, 2007’s Andorra, showed that Snaith was actually starting to develop an interest in more traditional song structures, something he outright acknowledged on the leadoff track, “Melody Day”.
And now, with Swim, you can’t even count on hearing psychedelia when you put on Caribou. In fact, Swim really doesn’t sound like Caribou at all. Snaith’s incomparable percussive ear certainly gets a workout here, but it’s used in service of synth-driven and club-ready electronica. There are occasional shades of his previous obsession with the trippier elements of the sixties. “Kaili”’s warbly transitions certainly call back the woozy melodicism of Andorra, but by and large, Swim is an album of spartan dance music, mostly free of the hallucinatory, kaleidoscopic bursts of color that informed Caribou’s previous music.
This isn’t to say that Swim is listless or dreary. Snaith wears his newfound interests well, which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise given the previous agility he’s shown while trying out new genres. Snaith has mentioned that the album’s title alludes to his newfound obsession with, well, swimming, and while I can’t say that this music really reminds me of swimming, there are comparable elements. Swim is certainly impellent, and each song is driven by a variety of components all working towards keeping the song moving. Sure, Snaith could have just as easily named the album Run or the even more appropriate Dance, but the latter is way too on-the-nose. Plus, he’s obsessed with swimming now, hence Swim. Moving on…
First single “Odessa” has already worked up a great deal of Internet anticipation for Swim, and I can assure you that it works as brilliantly as an introduction to this album as it does as a stand-alone single. In both roles, “Odessa” serves as a warning to his established fans, effectively warding off anyone not willing to make the jump to the new Caribou from the Caribou of old. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine anyone being turned off by “Odessa”, a bracing shot of burbling bass and high-pitched squeaks over a pristine beat complimented with continuously expanding instrumentation. You’ll be smiling ear to ear even before the excellently placed arpeggiated synth line shows up over halfway through the song. Snaith may be erratic, but he certainly provides plenty of aural treats to ensure that you follow his impulses.
At this point, you’re either in or out. If you choose to press on, and I’m sure many will on the strength of “Odessa”, you’ll find an album rich with increasingly elaborate patterns and little tricks that occur in the most unexpected places. I’m thinking of the way “Sun” coolly repeats itself over a five minute period while subtly expanding, only to burst wide open near the end. The exhilarating “Bowls” begins with bells toppling over each other and euphoric harps but is almost entirely driven by an insidious, subterranean mood. This is all before Swim’s true high point; the combination of “Leave House”’s impeccably designed groove and the giddy, electro thrills of “Hannibal”.
Snaith may stick with this style, or Swim may be a one-off experiment for him before he retreats to his more familiar fixation on psychedelia. Or maybe he’ll move on and try his hand at another genre. None of these scenarios would be terribly surprising, and Swim is further proof that wherever far-flung places Caribou goes, the wisest decision is to follow.