The music of Canadian four-piece Alvvays is often branded as college rock. It’s a fitting label, but one that doesn’t quite encapsulate the mood, or the aesthetic, conjured up by Toronto’s indie darlings. To accurately convey the feeling of Alvvays’ music without actually hearing it, you’d have to imagine a teen drama set in an 80s liberal arts college where everyone is wearing lovely jumpers while also fucking each other and getting high. All the kids would be unrealistically good looking, with immaculate complexions and bright, keen eyes, studying poetry in the morning, playing tennis in the afternoon and getting lovesick and wasted after dark. It would be written by Bret Easton Ellis and directed by David Lynch. That’s what Alvvays sounds like.
On their charming debut album, the eponymous Alvvays released in 2014, the band introduced their whimsical, melancholic sound via a hazy jangle of electric guitars and sleepy drumbeats. On album number two, the band aren’t budging from their slacker rock roots, concocting another record of dreamy indie pop choruses and considered, nuanced lyrics.
Despite the three year gap, Antisocialites feels very much like a continuation of Alvvays. The blasé, too-cool-for-school guitar fuzz is back, although now there’s an added punch, the arrangements fuller and the production sharper. The preoccupations of album number one are still prevalent though, the youthful abandon of ‘Archie, Marry Me’ mirrored in the buoyant excitement of ‘Saved By A Waif’, while the band’s natural tendency towards melancholy is not only present, but exaggerated.
On their second album, failure to connect – or reconnect – is what’s on the band’s mind. As the title would suggest, it’s an album that focuses on separation and distance, even when every attempt has been made to establish intimacy. On scuzzy album opener ‘In Undertow’, lead singer Molly Rankin details a relationship that has reached breaking point. “There’s no turning back after what’s been said,” she sings, her voice at once resigned and removed. A further disconnect between the two is suggested by Rankin’s rhetorical question in verse one being answered ‘metaphorically’ by her lover in verse two, positioning the pair on different wavelengths, their communication destined to be forever hampered by misunderstanding.
Post-breakup freedom is explored on ‘Not My Baby’, the poppy, upbeat arrangement made gloomy by Rankin’s desolate vocals. When she sings of going out and doing whatever she wants, it’s with a loneliness that suggests a certain nostalgia for the good old days. It’s not until the final verse that Rankin is able to fully embrace single life, gleefully singing about throwing off her rose-tinted glasses and feeling alive for the first time. The echoing, overlapping vocals create a sense of euphoria, like clouds of dust clearing for the first time, revealing a colourful, new world ready to explore.
But rose-tinted nostalgia still colours much of the album, such as on ‘Dreams Tonite’, the album’s standout track. Twilight and wistful bus rides paint a pretty picture, but Rankin’s dreamy refrain of “If I saw you on the street would I have you in my dreams tonight?” suggests the type of internal questioning that signals a relationship’s end. The echoey, misty-eyed track is Alvvays at their best, both pensive and poppy, a realisation of wilting love not enough to stand in the way of the band’s fondness for a good melody.
And there is no shortage of winning melodies here. Generally simple verse-chorus setups, Alvvays favour short and snappy bursts of energy to drawn out, meandering detours, something that is reflected in the album’s run time of just 32 minutes. But though the band typically opts for layered, flowery arrangements, Rankin’s often despondent vocals turn them into bittersweet odes to unfulfilled dreams. On the spunky ‘Plimsoll Punks’, Rankin chips through the outer shell of an enigmatic wannabe to find there’s nothing of substance underneath, while on ‘Your Type’, a messy night out turns sour with the realisation that the two drunken revellers are incompatible. As Rankin puts it “Let me state delicately you’re an O and I’m AB.”
It’s this sense of being underwhelmed and disappointed that characterises Antisocialites. Though the band pursues excitement and connections, it is often left with unfilled desires. This is laid bare on the album’s most affecting track, ‘Already Gone’, seemingly about a death in a swimming pool. “Instead of an eruption / We bubble only briefly,” Rankin sighs, aware that her search for someone who understands must begin anew. “I don’t think I will find it again,” she mournfully concludes.
Alvvays are in a wistful mood on their accomplished second album, searching for something to hold on to, something real and consuming, but coming up empty handed. Yet Antisocialites isn’t a pessimistic listen. As Rankin herself acknowledges on closing track ‘Forget About Life’, accomplishing a simple task can take several tries. And Rankin and co are all too ready to try again. “Do you want to forget about life with me tonight?” Rankin sings, dejected but not defeated, down but not out, and still determined to find someone, anyone, on her wavelength.