On ‘After the Earthquake’, a highlight from Alvvays’ third album Blue Rev, the natural disaster in question hovers in the background. Listen close enough you’ll hear singer Molly Rankin noticing the feeling of “the northern tide crashing on the pines,” the kind of lyric you’ll find tucked in parentheses; in the rush of the moment, though, she’s more drawn to the loud noise that’s obscuring the words of a beloved crime show character on TV. It’s hard to tell what’s going on, but it’s happening fast, and a couple is caught in the middle of their own storm. Inspired by Haruki Murakami’s After the Quake, the song compresses all this chaos to focus on the dynamics of a relationship on the verge of a breakdown: “Those days I’d never let you fall apart,” she reminisces as the band makes room for a moment of striking intimacy. “But things fade like the scent of a brand new car/ Why would I ever fall in love again when every detail is over the guardrail?” Suddenly, everything snaps into view.
By now, fans will be familiar with the looming threats that permeate even the Canadian group’s most infectious songs, their unique ability to sneak gut-punching truths and sinister references into their vibrant, jangly brand of dreampop. You can trace this kind of uneasy, open-ended narrative style back to a song like ‘Next of Kin’, off their now-classic indie pop debut. But we’ve waited long enough – Blue Rev is Alvvays’ first album in five years, following 2017’s exuberant Antisocialities – and in this stretch of time, the band has simultaneously roughened and brightened up their approach. As their focus grows sharper and sharper, it only illuminates the raw edge that was both amplified and muffled in their earlier recordings, exposing the nervy detail that might have otherwise been lost in its discordant glow. Aided by producer Shawn Everett, Alvvays’ longest project to date ends up a thrilling ride that takes their uproarious sound and incisive storytelling to new heights.
Even in its most propulsive, sugary moments, the weight of the past hangs heavy over these songs. Rankin doesn’t let her narrator dwell in nostalgia, but she can’t escape it, either. “We used to tell each other all the lies and in a fairly civil way,” she sings with a mix of bemused envy and humour on highlight ‘Velveteen’, before her voice shoots gleefully toward the sky. On the dizzying, rambunctious ‘Pressed’, the sight of some “benevolent collegiate” whose “stride is lengthened by his sense of wonder” causes her to lament, “Oh well, I lost that shine, didn’t I?,” before falling into a series of “Not long ago you…” Clearly, the passage of time hasn’t made it any easier to bear wounds that refuse to heal: “I’ll do my best to keep things light/ But I won’t apologize for something I’m not sorry for,” she insists, yet much of Blue Rev is steeped in regret.
Alvvays know when to rush forth and dial back the tension. Between the mania of ‘After the Earthquake’ and ‘Pressed’ is ‘Tom Verlaine’, which tempers that old flame; flourishes of guitar reverb brush up against Rankin as she assures herself, “I’ll feel better with the breeze on my back/ And I’ll sleep better knowing it’s in the past.” Even in the hypnotic oddity that is ‘Very Online Guy’, the playfully distorted vocals make way for a moment of clear vulnerability. Such displays of restraint can work as a song’s hardest punch, too. ‘Easy on Your Own’ burns with frustration, but it’s not until they hit the brake on the bridge that it cuts through with a startling realization: “I waited so long for you/ Wasted some of the best years of my life/ And I wanted to see it through this time.”
There isn’t a song on Blue Rev that doesn’t hold some kind of spark, but the album is most brilliant for the way it threads its stories, particularly in the latter half. While ‘Tile by Tile’ is haunting and remorseful, the delightfully scuzzy ‘Pomeranian Spinster’ that follows spins right onto the other side. By the time we get to ‘Belinda Says’, the protagonist is finally making her escape, and you get the sense she’s still in that same vehicle, low on fuel and oblivious to the road ahead, with the song blaring from the radio as her one true compass.
Of course, the thrill doesn’t last forever. A few minutes later she’s stuck and down on her luck again, “riding the pine,” not quite as invigorated by the hope of another shot at the love that kicked this whole thing into gear. Rankin has already posed the critical question: “How do I gauge whether this is stasis or change?” None of it ever really fades in the world of Alvvays, who drift restlessly – though not aimlessly – between past and future. But maybe it doesn’t matter – maybe the goal isn’t to find yourself in a new place. If you manage to crawl through the muck of time and still stay pretty much the same person, Blue Rev suggests, that, in itself, is something of a miracle.