One unnerving revelation from this year has gone mostly unnoticed or, rather, we haven’t had much time for it between surviving a pandemic and a grueling U.S. election cycle. That is, the realization that we are not alone in the universe. Whether we’re talking about possible habitability within our own solar system, the recent disappearing monoliths (which, in all likelihood, are an elaborate stunt) or the very sci-fi movie-esque “galactic federation” mentioned by former Israeli official Haim Eshed, we’ve got company. And if intelligent life has heard of us, they may have learned their first lessons about Earth via the Voyager Golden Record. This one-of-a-kind recording compiled messages in different languages, classical as well as rock n’ roll music and other artifacts of life on our planet, and sent them off into the stars.
It was this project, and the love story born from it, that helped to inspire The Avalanches’ third album, We Will Always Love You. The Australian group emerged fully formed in their sonic niche, combining samples to create hooky electronic tunes inspired by genres of decades past, with their celebrated record Since I Left You (2000). Their 2016 release Wildflower also received praise for its dancey, creative tracks, but now Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi of The Avalanches are turning their eyes heavenward. They were stirred by the romance between Ann Druyan (the creative director of NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Message Project) and the famed scientist Carl Sagan, who fell in love during the creation of the Golden Record. In making We Will Always Love You, The Avalanches manifested their own Golden Record of sorts, bringing together the far-reaching sounds of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, Blood Orange, The Smiths’ Johnny Marr and numerous others—not to mention the countless samples used—to take their own warm snapshot of humanity.
Digging through the album’s specific musical and cultural allusions is no easy task, but for the listener content with simply enjoying the record as is, We Will Always Love You does not disappoint. The LP is woven with otherworldly, alien sounds, yet there is an undeniable coziness to the songs—thanks in part to the cozy crackle of vinyl samples and stirring vocals—that combats the coldness often associated with outer space. The first song, “Ghost Story,” establishes this beautiful contrast clearly, with ethereal, almost synth-like voices harmonizing over a voicemail message from Orono Noguchi of Superorganism. “It’s hard, really, being like, you know, so far apart,” she says awkwardly but earnestly, later adding, “I’ll still be here. I’ll be with you and I’ll always love you.” These last four words find themselves refracted and echoed on the title track and beyond.
The Avalanches also prove more sedate on their third album, and comfortably so. There are moments with genuine drops and bops—“Wherever You Go” (featuring Jamie xx, Neneh Cherry and CLYPSO) and “Music Makes Me High” are some of the most energetic highs—but the group seem content to leave you in a sonic ebb and flow, being washed over with varying aural textures. Short interludes, flickering like the little blips of sound you get when scanning through radio stations, stitch together the longer tracks and complete the cosmic feel.
Examining the samples and stories behind We Will Always Love You serves to enrich an already-sublime album. “A Song for Barbara Payton” was inspired by a tragic actress who died at the age of 39 after struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. The lyrics tell the emotional truth of her story—“They say you’re gonna put me down / That’s alright baby / If you wanna leave me,” is intoned in powerful gospel vocals—but may also compel you to seek out the details. After listening to the You Must Remember This podcast episode on Payton or even just scanning her Wikipedia page, you’ll likely find the song grows in its relevance. Like a dying star, the blonde bombshell burnt bright and fast.
Years ago, when the Golden Record was sent out into space, Druyan’s brain waves were recorded and included on it. She and Sagan had just promised to marry one another, and that transmission has captured the fervency of her ardor, rendering it an enduring message of love. On their latest effort, The Avalanches turn out a life-affirming and rewarding musical experience that sends its own quiet, necessary refrain out into the world: “We will always love you.”
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.