“In Undertow” and the Thundering Return of Alvvays

I listened to Alvvays’s self-titled album almost exclusively for 3 months straight in 2014-2015 after seeing them at Beachland Tavern. After such a strong debut album, I anticipated their sophomore album (or at least an announcement!) sometime last year but was left disappointed by the band’s near-radio silence on social media. Finally, on June 2nd, Alvvays shared a brief teaser that hinted at a new single and, even better, a new album:

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On cue, the band and their label, Polyvinyl, announced today that Alvvays’s new album, Antisocialites, will be released on September 8 (preorder available here). The full version of the song in the social media teaser was also released, entitled “In Undertow”:

This single has the same richly-layered instrumental fuzziness that characterized Alvvays’s first album, but it gives more focus on the Farfisa organ than on the melodic guitar feedback that drove their earlier songs. The production is much clearer, less muted, as if the melody can finally breathe. Molly Rankin’s voice carries clearly and beautifully over the rest of the band instead of being compressed into their lo-fi sound. “In Undertow” still sounds like what we’d expect from Alvvays, but they’ve become more sophisticated and refined after their initial success. (Side note: the emphasis on Molly’s vocals, especially her emotional-yet-deadpan delivery, reminded me of her incredibly overlooked solo release She EP from 2010; it’s difficult to find the studio recordings now as the EP was only released on the now-defunct Grooveshark, but you can listen to a live version here.)

Lyrically, “In Undertow” is what Polyvinyl describes as “a hi-amp breakup fantasy that is both crushing and charming for its level-headedness.” The motif of water carries not only through the song’s words (“You find a wave and try to hold on for as long as you can/…We toss and turn in undertow”) but in Molly’s singing as well; the chorus rolls forward with repetitions and pulsing emphasis, each wave of the verse finally crashing to your ear with the statement that “there’s no turning back after what’s been said.” (This isn’t the first time Alvvays has used the rushing current as a break-up metaphor either — in “Next of Kin,” Molly describes losing her lover as they drown, pulled away in the river, leaving her “sifting through the leaves.”) Despite being a break-up song, “In Undertow” isn’t sad, at least not about the person we’re drifting away from. Molly’s vocals lack deep emotion and are delivered rather matter-of-factly, like this break-up is simply another mundane occurrence rather than a life-altering, melancholy event: “I’m so uninspired,” she croons in the final chorus. There’s longing in this song, but it’s longing for moving forward rather than for the person drifting away. It’s time to go, there’s nothing left here; let the waves keep on crashing.

Overall, “In Undertow” promises another great release from Alvvays as their catchy lo-fi melodies evolve into a cleaner, larger sound. Letting Molly Rankin’s sweet vocals carry over the echoing expanses brings more attention to the emotional heart of the song — even if that emotion is only apathy.

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