by Clara Christopher
No one stands astride musical genres with feet so firmly planted like Dan Snaith, the man behind the music of ‘Caribou.’ Over the years, he’s made confident shifts between albums, moving effortlessly from electronic to 60’s psychedelic pop, somehow preserving a trace of himself in each record.
When he was a teen, a visit to London connected him with Aphex Twin, a pioneer in the world of intelligent dance music. In this meeting, Snaith was exposed to all kinds of progressive rock and electronic music, which became fodder for his bedroom music-making experiments. To this day, even after playing alongside renowned musicians like Radiohead, Snaith still records in his bedroom. Instead of studying music formally, which he believed would have been “missing the point” of his music-making, Snaith found himself back in London, embarking on an academic career in mathematics as well as a career in music, drawing influence from the London DJ scene.
In this article, I review all 6 of Caribou’s albums. Read on to find out my personal ranking and 2 favourite tracks from each album.
‘Start Breaking My Heart,’ 2001
Ranking: Fourth of Six
Personal Rating: 7.9
Aptly named, Start Breaking My Heart is nostalgic yet heartsick music. It’s a down-tempo electronic record that’s conceptually rooted in Snaith’s hometown, Dundas, colloquially known as the ‘Valley Town.’ Soft melodies like “James’ Second Haircut” conjure themes of childhood innocence and reveries of an idyllic early life setting. This album reminds me of the childhood segment in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: it’s sentimental in an intense but pure way, and it characterizes the world in robust but rudimentary terms. Start Breaking My Heart is often compared to Boards of Canada, but it’s undeniably Caribou’s own. Each track builds steadily, repeating a lovely tune over a deepening rhythm that echoes a human heartbeat. Snaith succeeds in channeling heartfelt song through abstract computer tones, sowing seeds of life in the midst of deadening technology. It’s not an album for every mood, but it excels within its own limits.
Favourite Tracks: James’ Second Haircut and Paul’s Birthday
‘Up in Flames,’ 2003
Ranking: Second of Six
Personal Rating: 8.3
Up in Flames requires that you surrender yourself to the experience of its inventive sound. It’s psychedelic music that’s full and enlivening, but never overdone. You can play the album from beginning to end, and each song flows into the next, taking you on a mystical musical jaunt. With lush melodies that wander in every direction, this album reveals the far-reaching depths of Caribou’s music-making ability. Though it borrows from 60s psychedelic pop, Up in Flames is infused with electronic tones and experimental gestures that make it original. In fact, its departure from a traditional song structure is its most successful aspect, creating an album that’s bracing in its unpredictableness. Listening to Up in Flames, I’m left feeling inspired and hopeful, but still anchored in reality- a true feat of psychedelic music, given its notoriously disorienting effect.
Favourite Tracks: Crayon and Bijoux
‘The Milk of Human Kindness,’ 2005
Ranking: Fifth of Six
Personal Rating: 7.8
Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth famously claimed that her son was “too full o’th’ milk of human kindness” to avenge his father. Snaith may have placed “human kindness” in his album title, but he also named each track after a wildlife predator, creating some sharp thematic juxtaposition. Like Up in Flames, this record is inspired by 60’s psychedelia, but the songs are less sprawling, more traditionally structured, and heavily influenced by krautrock, similar in sound to Neu!. Despite the album’s anticipatory spirit and Simon and Garfunkel-like vocals, it has undercurrents of looming threat that make it uniquely alluring.
Favourite Tracks: Bees and Barnowl
Ranking: Sixth of Six
Personal Rating: 6.8
Of all Caribou’s albums, Andorra is the most bright-eyed and mellow, buoyed by flutes and bells, and touched up with spliced tape sounds and synthesizer. It’s heavily inspired by 60’s sunshine pop, evoking some kind of electronic version of the Beach Boys and the Beatles.This album is simple and euphonic, making it Caribou’s safest effort, but he sticks too closely to traditional 60s pop. Also, the lack of darker elements in his songs makes them feel inaccessibly surreal and sometimes vapid.
Favourite Tracks: After Hours and Niobe
Ranking: Third of Six
Personal Rating: 8.0
As Caribou’s first electronic dance album, Swim caught everyone off guard. Like previous albums, it has a psychedelic slant, but it’s minimalist body music with a tenebrous edge. If Up in Flames is Caribou’s most successful experimental work, Swim is still his most innovative: his psychedelic spin on dance music is truly unprecedented. Swim is also his most clearly defined concept album. He pours the liquid dynamic of water into each song, offering out-of-phase vocals and rippling, reverberating soundscapes. This couples nicely with the lyrical theme of trying to keep one’s head above water in times of romantic unrest. Swim has a menacing air, but its take on alienated love is deeply relatable.
Favourite Tracks: Found Out and Leave House
Ranking: First of Six
Personal Rating: 8.3
Our Love is Caribou’s most open-hearted record, and, for that reason, it’s the most accessible and engrossing album. Given Snaith’s history of emotional reticence and his preoccupation with abstract sound experimentation, Our Love is a leap of faith, expressing romantic triumphs and failures with invigorating candour. These expressions are impressive against the backdrop of meticulously engineered sounds, this time given to us in a sophisticated but even more stripped down form than Swim. Our Love is Snaith’s second foray into electronic dance music after Swim, but it’s less experimental and more focused. As an artist who’s spent a lot of time broadening his sound through psychedelic and ambient electronic music, it’s nice to see him hone it all back in and devote one record to an important subject with judicious control.
Favourite Tracks: Your Love Will Set You Free and Second Chance