If you’re a word person, intrigued by the gnomic puzzles of Bob Dylan or charmed by the luminous self-examinations of Joni Mitchell, it’s quite possible that you’re also somewhat baffled by the praise currently being heaped on Caribou’s fourth full-length, Our Love. The lyrics for the album opener, “Can’t Do Without You”, for instance, consist almost entirely of two brief phrases: “Can’t do without”, repeated 56 times, and “I can’t do without you,” times 34.
Deathless prose this ain’t, but the man behind Caribou, Dan Snaith, freely admits that words are not his forte. “I listen to a pop song or music on the radio and I don’t know a single word,” he says, on the line from a Los Angeles hotel. “I probably can’t even tell you the lyrics from the chorus of the song; I’ve always just absorbed things as sound.”
So it seems to be a contradiction when Snaith also says that Our Love is the most personal music he’s made, and the most likely to be misunderstood. It’s his most intimate record, he contends, because its songs are “sketches about things going on in my life or in the lives of friends”, and his most deceptive because it’s all about love. Stick that topic next to the kind of EDM rhythms favoured on the new disc, and one automatically arrives at the subtext of sex. Snaith, however, says that he’s even more concerned with one of its consequences: fatherhood.
“My last album [2010’s Swim] was a bit of a change for me,” he explains. “It connected with more people than my previous work had, and made me kind of sit up and think, ‘Wait a minute, people are listening to this music!’ Which is a funny thing to think for the first time 10 years into making music. And at exactly the same time, my daughter was born, and it was that kind of clichéd stock-taking moment where you think, ‘Well, what are the important things in my life? And of that, what do I want the important things to be in the music that I’m making?’ So I wanted to have that feeling of love and connection in the music that I was making, make it about that.
“I was having all these different experiences of love, whether it be as a new father, as somebody in his mid-30s with lots of friends who were getting divorced, or as somebody reflecting on my parents’ generation as they age,” the Ontario-born, U.K.–based musician adds. “So there were all these ideas, and I wanted to get some sense of all of that into the music, capture some of that breadth of experience rather than just have it be about new love, teenage love, which is what a lot of popular music deals with.”
Fatherhood also had an impact on the way that Our Love sounds. Having a baby in the house didn’t change Snaith’s working method: all of Caribou’s releases have been bedroom productions, recorded on his computer rather than in an elaborate studio. But the music he surrounded himself with as a stay-at-home dad found its way into the mix.
“I thought Our Love was going to be this more digital, hyper-real, synthetic-sounding record,” he says. “But between my daughter being born and her turning two years old, when I was making the record, I just spent a lot of time sitting on the floor with her, doing whatever, playing with some toy. I wasn’t capable of doing much beyond being with her, and I had this thought of ‘What would be the first music that I want her to hear in her life?’ And I ended up listening to lots of classic soul music: Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder. I didn’t clue in that it had some kind of relevance to the music I was making, but when I listen back to it now, I hear that kind of sonic quality, that kind of warmth and directness.
“Songs in the Key of Life, for example, is the epitome of that,” Snaith continues. “Stevie Wonder made that record at the same time in his life. I don’t know if he had kids at the time or whatever, but it’s that kind of ‘my life’ record. Of course, if I had thought or said to anybody, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m going to make a record that’s influenced by Songs in the Key of Life,’ it would have been a laughable thing to try and do, ’cause it’s such an amazing record.”
Consider Our Love as Snaith’s “songs in the key of my life” document, then—and a fine soundtrack for those moments when words fail to fully describe the pleasures of existence.
Caribou plays two sold-out shows at the Commodore Ballroom on Thursday (March 5).