Being in an elevator in an office building is a singular experience. Inside these upscale metal boxes, the degree of interpersonal awkwardness is absurd and your ride is scored by the most universally abhorred music of all time. The piped-in smooth jazz or treacly Muzak is designed to be placid and completely inoffensive, but it tends to annoy most people and to make social interactions inside an elevator even more artificial. Caribou is often derided as elevator music, and to be fair, the comparison is based partially in truth. They do tread dangerously and beautifully close to easy listening. The band, led by Canadian mathematician Dan Snaith, makes subtle electronic music that is characterized by the consistency and simplicity of purpose that people (perhaps mistakenly) believe is paramount to elevator music. But it certainly is more listenable and enjoyable than what one would hear ascending on the way to a desk job.
“Swim,” Caribou’s fifth album, makes this comparison a sinister one. It’s not impossible to imagine this album in an elevator, but the “Swim” elevator, and I offer this as a complement, would be the worst and most terrifying ride imaginable. The tranquility of smooth jazz standards is designed to make you forget the fact that you are far above the ground in a machine that could break at any moment and send you plunging to your death, but the acute dread and creeping minor chords of the “Swim” elevator would make a patron only too aware of his or her potential impending doom.
The album also proves that Snaith does not mess around. It begins with an ominous thunderclap and launches into a driving, mid-tempo beat that does not let up for the next five minutes, eventually climaxing to oxymoronic and cathartic clamor of jazz flute, piano and oboe. This song is “Odessa,” the first single of “Swim” that has been making the rounds on the Internet for the last three or four months. It is perhaps the most intense Caribou song of recent memory, as though Snaith tore down a wall of reverb and experimentation that has separated him from his listeners in past releases. His voice is the same raspy yelp as always, yet on “Swim” it seems so much more substantial. Before you couldn’t be sure that he actually existed because his sound was too ethereal and transitory, but now he’s practically in the room with you.
Caribou’s last album, the Polaris Prize-winning “Andorra,” was a bit of a departure from their previous work, so much of the anticipation surrounding “Swim” dealt in wondering which direction they would move in next. “Swim” ditches the sun-drenched psychedelia and sixties nostalgia of its predecessor for a return to the hazy electronica of his earlier work. It keeps a few important elements of “Andorra,” namely orchestration (remember the jazz flute and oboe) and song structures that are narrative in nature rather than simply ambient songscapes.
It’s pretty remarkable that Caribou was able to stare into the depths of bland elevator music and come back with something actually moving. “Swim” may not ever serve as a soundtrack to an ascent to an office, but it should find its way on to your iPod.