Caribou’s Dan Snaith: the Family Man Surrounded By Change

His long-awaited seventh album, “Suddenly,” is an exercise in empathy.
Caribou’s Dan Snaith: the Family Man Surrounded By Change

His long-awaited seventh album, “Suddenly,” is an exercise in empathy.

Words: Max Freedman

photo by Thomas Neukum

February 25, 2020

Dan Snaith’s newest Caribou album is about the sudden changes that happen in a person’s life—but one especially unexpected moment didn’t make the LP, aptly titled Suddenly. “It was extremely dramatic,” he says of his second daughter’s birth in 2016. “We underestimated the amount of time we needed to get to the hospital, and my wife was like, ‘This is happening right now, this instant!’” As fate would have it, their driver was their midwife, so Snaith’s daughter was born “right onto the street, with people drinking an espresso at the little café next door, people shouting at the parking attendants…but then a minute later, we were all sitting in the back of the car laughing, crying, and holding this little baby.”

Such a transition in Snaith’s own life might seem ideal to include on Suddenly, but for the most part, he wrote not about himself, but about the shifts that people close to him have experienced. “There have been a lot of difficulties in the last five years for the people around me,” he says, adding that he felt the need to “write about these things because they’re centrally important to me.” As his role became to “empathize with the people going through these circumstances,” he found himself writing each song “as if it were a letter to the person that it’s about.”

This approach often results in narratives so ambiguous they could just as likely be recounting events that happened to people other than Snaith, fictional characters (as has previously been the case), or Snaith himself. The first of these categories dominates the album, but each has its moment in the spotlight, and with each perspective change comes a shift in sound. Suddenly is easily the most sonically diverse Caribou record to date, and Snaith is proud of this distinction. He likens the album to a “mixtape you would put together for a friend, where you’re trying to link one song to the next, but they all have different genres.” 

“Like I Loved You,” a song Snaith sings in the first person despite it narrating a circumstance between two of his friends, is a noodling electronic tune that gently bubbles like the last bits of carbonation rising to the top of a soda bottle. “Never Come Back,” one of the entirely fictional tales, recalls the dancefloor euphoria of Suddenly’s predecessor, 2014’s Our Love, and was “more about the pure joy of making music.” Closer “Cloud Song” is a seven-minute lazy river of a crescendo, starting as a diminutive whisper and growing into a dizzying synthpop heartache as Snaith considers how “the people we take for granted can be gone tomorrow” following his father’s severe health crisis.

As Snaith processes the events that unfold around him, he cycles back through the entire Caribou discography (he also records as Daphni, and he originally released his first two Caribou records as Manitoba before a bizarre lawsuit forced the name change). Dance track “You and I” could pass for an Our Love cut, but he relegates that album’s technicolor intensity and bright hues to this song’s final ninety seconds (and highlight “Ravi” is a masterful update on Our Love’s high-sheen bombast and grooves). The kaleidoscopic chimes and thumping bass of “New Jade” resemble the style of 2010’s techno-psych odyssey Swim, and the soul-sampling ecstasy of “Home” conjures the same psychedelic, ’60s energy as 2007’s Andorra and 2005’s The Milk of Human Kindness.

Andorra and Swim come to mind throughout Suddenly, even when the new album’s music doesn’t recall either LP. On those albums, Snaith observed all manner of interpersonal fallout from a third-person point of view, just as he often does on Suddenly—but there’s a major difference between now and then. Suddenly’s narratives are mostly based on real-life events, but his Andorra and Swim stories were fictional. Snaith says that while creating Andorra, he would listen to his compositions and write an entirely made-up “sketch of some scene that would capture the same mood in the music.” And anyone who has listened to Swim’s two landmarks, “Odessa” and “Kaili,” knows that Snaith excels at vividly depicting the struggles between two people without detailing what precipitated the tension.

“I have little kids now, and my life is far more balanced than it used to be. I spend time just hanging out with them, and I would never work on a weekend anymore.”

Listeners might observe that Suddenly, too, shines in its obscured narration, but people close to Snaith have easily identified the events that inspired it. Snaith says that Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys, with whom he’s long been close friends (both are electronic artists from the Ontario scene who experienced huge breakout success in the aughts), quickly recognized the people and events from the lyrics. His reaction? “‘It’s so weird to hear you singing about actual real things in your life,’” Snaith says Greenspan told him. Though fans might not recognize the album’s personal touches, they’re there.

What fans probably do recognize, though, is the fact that Suddenly has taken a while to arrive. Between 2001 and 2010, Snaith released five albums, but between 2011 and now, he’s only put out two. That’s because, with age, Snaith has begun worrying more about “this sense of inevitable decline in musical creativity as people get older.” Snaith says that this fear has manifested in increasingly large, if not absurd, numbers of drafts sketched for each album. He whittled down only forty drafts to finalize his 2001 debut Start Breaking My Heart (the first of the two Manitoba albums), whereas Suddenly is the end product of working through nine hundred. “It’s a really worrying trajectory,” he says, noting that it’s the primary reason for the increasing time between albums.

There’s also a far more wholesome reason for these increasingly long gaps. “I have little kids now, and my life is far more balanced than it used to be,” he says. “I spend time just hanging out with them, and I would never work on a weekend anymore. I didn’t have any of that balance in my life when I was in my twenties or early thirties, so I would just spend every spare moment thinking about music.” Now, by contrast, his plans after our conversation are having dinner with his wife and kids—and after that, putting the kids to bed.

The picture of Dan Snaith as a family man directly contrasts some of the narratives found on Suddenly: the departed lover of “Never Come Back,” the despair of a still-loved ex finding happiness with a new person on “Like I Loved You,” the partner in the process of leaving on the mildly funky, then lethargic and psychedelic, “Lime.” Rest assured, though—Snaith’s connections couldn’t be stronger, despite the chaos around him. “I’ve had a stable life,” he says. “I’ve been together with my wife for the last twenty years, and we have a very happy relationship. I feel so fortunate.” FL