Measure for measure: On ‘Blue Rev,’ Alvvays is forever

A drawing of the band members in different colors below the text "ALVVAYS."
(Ella Lehavi • The Student Life)

In March 2018, Selena Gomez posted to Instagram a sepia-toned video of a trip she and her friends took around Sydney, Australia. As people laughed and lounged on the deck, the sailboat cruised forward, prompting small white eruptions in the sparkling blue that flanked its sides. Over all this was a voice, light but resonant, as if an echo from heaven, that sang a looping question: “If I saw you on the street, would I have you in my dreams tonight?”

I blushed, phone in hand, as a few faces crossed my mind. I felt a curious desire for something I couldn’t imagine: the people I had yet to see who would one day make their way through my life and into my dreams.

Since 2011, Canadian band Alvvays (pronounced “always”) has graced the indie pop scene with vibrant songs of youth and whimsy. You may have heard their bigger hits — the soaring “Archie, Marry Me” or the ethereal “Dreams Tonite” from Gomez’s video — coursing out the speakers of a café, in your friend’s dorm room or at last year’s Pomona Farm Fest, where the former was covered twice. A quiet five years have trundled by since their last record, the silence finally punctured a few months ago by the release of the first single, “Pharmacist,” off their latest album, “Blue Rev,” which is out today, Oct. 7.

I listened to “Pharmacist” after work as I walked home from the train stop, the muggy July air like a heavy duvet on my long-air-conditioned shoulders. The song is about a chance run-in: the kind that informs you that someone else, an old flame or estranged friend, is also back in your hometown. The sounds that crash in when the titular word is evoked a few seconds in — “I know you’re back / I saw your sister at the pharmacy” — are at once fuzzy and unshakable, like a wave drenching you in all its messy kinetic power. The rest of the nostalgic, shoegazey song offers a cathartic jumble of melodic noise, all while retaining Alvvays’ familiar poppy punch. I returned to my apartment buoyant, feeling as though something had opened inside of me.

You can sense the vibrancy of Alvvays’ sound — a lathering of synths and guitar and distortions — simply by looking at their album art: hot hues of red and orange and the blue of an especially hot flame or an early-evening storm, idiosyncratic expressions on throngs of people dressed in extravagant costume and gazing upon something far away. To listen to Alvvays is to be a warm body among many others, to be a face searching and emoting from a crowd.

Produced by Shawn Everett, “Blue Rev” is pleasantly coherent with Alvvays’ past work, if somewhat heavier and more blown out. Its making faced a deluge of disasters — stolen demos and flood-damaged equipment, as well as a pandemic that indefinitely separated their drummer from the rest of the band — forcing the band to continuously rebuild and rework the record. Lead vocalist Molly Rankin quarantined in her hometown of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia for much of its writing, and a longing to reinhabit the island permeates the album.

Fittingly, then, and in the vein of their last two albums, Alvvays’ third engulfs listeners with the warm and prickly tendencies of adolescence: fantasy and irony, intimacy and constraint. As before, their songs play on the dually quotidian and existential events and feelings all too familiar to today’s youth: college loans and ankle sprains, desires to elope and reservations about marriage — all packaged in pulsing color.

The standout tracks on “Blue Rev” are its two lead singles, “Pharmacist” and “Easy On Your Own?” The latter builds in each chorus to a cry, with Rankin entreating the listener (or the one who has left her) for guidance: How does one live with an independence, a solitude, unwittingly placed upon them? If “Easy On Your Own?” is wrenching and climactic, “After the Earthquake,” which directly follows, is a welcome release. Reminiscent of the joyful, sticky strings in “Lollipop (Ode to Jim),” the song centers on a crumbling relationship amidst a crumbled landscape.

Alvvays’ signature bittersweet flavor is not lost in “Blue Rev.” “Many Mirrors” is a honeyed love song about what can feel like a miracle of surviving setbacks and the ruthless passage of time. “Now that we’ve passed these many mirrors / I can’t believe we’re still the same,” sings Rankin, perhaps alluding to the band’s own myriad of struggles with putting together the album. On “Velveteen,” a wry and poignant anthem, she manages to sound almost holy: “Is she a perfect 10? / Have you found Christ again?”

Certain moments in “Blue Rev” are particularly familiar. “Pomeranian Spinster” pays faithful tribute to Alvvays’ classically loud and upbeat songs, like “Hey” and “Plimsoll Punks,” while the reverberant, choral “Lottery Noises” recalls both the quietude of “Already Gone” and, in one moment of pause, the spare, ringing melodies of Fleet Foxes.

The album does, however, elide some of the stripped-down rumination of the band’s previous songs — “Forget About Life,” “Party Police” and “Ones Who Love You,” to name a few — which combined lucid melodic vocals with a piercing emotional tenderness. A few songs on the record begin tightly and end up inundated with new timbres, rendering Rankin’s precious vocals perhaps a few layers too removed from the ear. Once steadfast above the sonic upheaval, her melody starts to get submerged in its surroundings.

But maybe this is the point: to douse yourself in the static, to stand in the eye of the storm, just as Alvvays did for the past half-decade’s crusade, gazing backward but ever moving forward. Alvvays plunges forth, then, on “Blue Rev” into a more abrasive and ambitious sound, still effervescent and still true.

Five years ago, Marc Hogan wrote for Pitchfork that “Archie, Marry Me” “looked at eternity through the lens of the mundane.” This same approach stands, with each new song first looking and then beginning to spin, around and around, eventually soaking eternity in a glorious, dizzying haze. We might dance to “Blue Rev,” cry to it, gaze out the window of a bus or ferry and dissociate as the world rolls by, or turn inward and contemplate our own heart-strings. Best to do it all: to let the wave crash over us from head to toe.

Becky Zhang PO ’22.5 likes to listen to music, especially while in a moving vehicle.

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