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The Beautiful Blue Twisted Fantasies of Alvvays

After a five-year hiatus, the Toronto indie-pop outfit returns this week with ‘Blue Rev,’ another dreamy collection of excellent anthems. Frontperson Molly Rankin talks about the new record—and more importantly, her fantasy basketball team.

ALVVAYS/Ringer illustration

You didn’t know Molly Rankin is a walking bucket?

Long before she performed in actual basketball arenas, the Alvvays frontperson was putting up numbers on much, much smaller stages as a microwave combo guard. “There was some game where I wasn’t even paying attention—I’m detached sometimes,” she explains. “I guess I scored 40 points or something?” Befitting the demeanor of someone whose music exemplifies a time-honored, humble ideal of “indie-pop” that was fostered at college radio rather than algorithmic playlists, Rankin neutralizes her matter-of-fact excellence with self-deprecation, partially attributing her supernova moment to the level of competition in Nova Scotia high school ball. That said, I’m somewhat inclined to disbelieve her story; if someone whose basketball career began and ended in high school scored 40 points in a game, they’d know the exact number of points and they would tell that story every chance they got. “I got some little award, but that could be urban legend,” she quips. “I could be cooking that up in my own egotistical imagination.” Rankin could have indeed been dreaming up the next star-crossed narrator of an Alvvays song, but I also see a metaphor for their dazzling third album Blue Rev: After years of hustling harder within their modest origins, this is a 40-minute heat check.

If the basketball lingo seems belabored, Rankin’s at least partially to blame. Throughout our Zoom conversation, the Toronto-based musician remains hidden behind a picture of Raptors teammates Precious Achiuwa and Fred VanVleet in a celebratory embrace; she laments the departure of Norman Powell, affectionately described as “The Buck Hunter” for the agony he specifically reserved for Milwaukee. As our discussion veers towards a recent streetball documentary, she proudly notes that the Raptors are the only team in the NBA with AND1 shoe deals; her first “actual basketball shoes” were also a pair of AND1s. Though her music relates so many stories of existential dread and hopelessness, she cannot bring herself to embrace Maple Leafs fandom. Playing at Coachella and Glastonbury somehow felt less surreal than seeing their band photo flashed during Inside the NBA, for reasons that remain mysterious to this day. “We were watching, like … ‘aaaah! what’s happening?!?!’ There was no context,” Rankin says.

And for all the obstacles that stood in the way of completing Blue Rev—a studio flood, losing and then replacing the entire rhythm section, border closures, the novel coronavirus—Rankin set perhaps the most contentious inter-Alvvays conflict in motion after joining a fantasy basketball league run by Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch. “I saw the word ‘rotisserie’ and I was extremely concerned, like what have I gotten into?” she recalls. But she soon got over any feelings of impostor syndrome. “And then I was walking around like Jerry Maguire, driving all my friends crazy with this league.” Cowriter/guitarist/producer Alec O’Hanley was among them: “I was gonna put a lyric in one of the songs like ‘Under the dim glow of Rotoworld,’” Rankin recollects, which to be fair, is a really awesome lyric. “Alec was like, ‘Enough with the fantasy basketball.’”

If it were up to Rankin, we’d probably spend the rest of this piece talking about box plus-minus and usage rate rather than the circumstances surrounding the creation of Blue Rev. Five years is an extremely long time for an indie rock band to spend between records, though it’s not unexpected from Alvvays, with 2017’s Antisocialites coming three years after their self-titled debut. This one might’ve arrived on a similar timeline, but they stopped recording in early 2020. “We were running in the airport in Seattle trying to get back to Canadian health care,” Rankin says. Similar to their Canadian compatriots in PUP, they had enough runway prior to the pandemic to survive their business shutting down for a year. But as 2021 dragged on and the money started to get tighter, “It started to feel like if it was another year of doing nothing, we would have to have a much more serious discussion about how to go forward,” she says, before letting out a sigh. “Maybe I would start going on TikTok, who knows. I’d rather rot in obscurity.”

Alvvays have long avoided creating a narrative that could overshadow the stories being told by Rankin. Alvvays was a slow-burn success that kept the band on the road for the next two years; a few months before, they were getting ignored amongst the flood of buzz bands and green beer at SXSW, ready to pack it in before an unsolicited SoundCloud demo of “Adult Diversion” and “Archie, Marry Me” became an office sensation at Polyvinyl Records. When Rankin and Polyvinyl label director Seth Hubbard describe the courtship between the two parties, it’s hard to tell who was more desperate to work with the other and who did a better job of hiding it. The follow-up was forged in a steady grind of sleepless nights and learning production and mixing on the fly. All of this backstory would’ve certainly pumped up the superficial complexity of Antisocialites, otherwise an archetypal sophomore album that both deepened and refined an already winning formula—their Room on Fire, if you will. But Alvvays made none of this public until this past April, when they appeared on the Polyvinyl Podcast to describe the destitute state in which they’d spent the first six years of their existence.

Rankin has also been wary of inspiring listeners to speculate about the relationship between her personal life and Alvvays’ music. (This was even before a thief broke into her apartment and made off with a recorder full of Blue Rev demos.) In fairness, Rankin’s characters are knowable and relatable, speaking on many of the same concerns likely held by the average Alvvays listener: They drop out of college or graduate with crushing debt and are disillusioned with either outcome. They recoil at suburban conformity while longing for the imagined security of a steady job and nuclear family. They lash out at reply guys and find themselves curiously nostalgic for a partner who mansplained poetry to them. As the narrator in Blue Rev centerpiece “Belinda Says” dreams of moving to the country and having a baby, the lyrics of “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” intrude, leaving it forever a reverie. In all likelihood, they’re going to end up like the “Pomeranian Spinster”: “Glass slipper never fit / it took a while but I’m trying to get over it.”

Even something like “Very Online Guy”—a mid-album left turn that sounds like a melted Stereolab CD, begging to be extrapolated into a lesson about social media etiquette—wasn’t directly influenced by anything that happened to Rankin. Their Twitter account follows zero people and functions like a digital telephone pole, solely used for posting new songs or upcoming tours. “It was very spontaneous and I just started singing, ‘He’s a very online guy and likes to hit reply,’” she explains, seeing an opportunity to build a character from scratch. It could’ve just as easily been about a very happy guy who likes to eat pie.

Alvvays have always functioned as a capital-B band in practice and in presentation. Rather than repeat the process of the first two albums, the core songwriting duo of Rankin and O’Hanley sought more input from Kerri MacLellan, the band’s keyboardist and Rankin’s childhood next-door neighbor. The new rhythm section of drummer Sheridan Riley and bassist Abbey Blackwell also happen to be roommates. All five members appear in every press photo. And yet, Rankin has found herself subject to the same parasocial projection that has caused many quasi-solo acts on Big Indie’s A-list to retreat from their Very Online persona. “I get proposed to very often, people believe that I will literally marry anyone,” she shrugs, referring to “Archie, Marry Me,” their first hit and a song that has clearly been misinterpreted by its fans. “Archie” has something of a sequel in Blue Rev’s “Easy On Your Own?”, the inquisitive nature of the title foreshadowing its narrator’s second thoughts about dealing with the demands of adulthood by retreating into solitude: “I waited so long for you / wasted some of the best years of my life / And I wanted to see it through this time.”

Just about every song on Blue Rev speaks to an animating tension between desire, fulfillment, and the doubts toward whether those are possible or even deserved. That same dynamic seems to be playing out in Alvvays’ approach to Blue Rev, one of 2022’s most anticipated albums and one that seems wary of conflating anticipation with hype. While Polyvinyl Podcast’s fourth episode encompasses four years that saw the label ink their first band that would go on to a major, as well as the reunion of American Football, it’s named after Antisocialites; its capsule description singles out Alvvays for making “two of the most beloved and highest-streamed albums” in the label’s catalog. Host and labelmate Fred Thomas lauds them for defying the expectations for new bands to constantly self-promote that Rankin describes as “kinda demeaning.” Since announcing Blue Rev in early July, the buzz around the record has only gotten louder. Still, she and O’Hanley lament how many times Alvvays have “shot ourselves in the foot” by not playing the game; they have concrete goals for indisputable “R.E.M.”-style milestones, like playing a late-night show. “We were maybe going to do it [for Antisocialites] but we wouldn’t have slept,” Rankin reflects. “We try to make decisions based on our well-being and sometimes it feels like you’re closing doors and if that was the right call.”

It’s hard to imagine Alvvays not achieving at least some of these things, if not all of them. If it’s not designed to topple the titanic Event Pop albums locked into the top spots in most year-end lists, like the Alvvays albums before it, Blue Rev is a Great Unifier. Some critics placed Alvvays and Antisocialites in the lineage of C86 and Sarah Records, paradigms of twee, cardigans-and-pins indie-pop; others heard echoes of the wave of late aughts bands like Vivian Girls or Dum Dum Girls that applied a homespun, fuzzed-out approach to ’60s girl groups. While those modes rarely held much currency outside the realm of music criticism, Alvvays have always felt more contemporary and populist in their lyrical mien and melodic generosity. Even in their absence, Alvvays felt strangely ubiquitous, a RIYL in what felt like at least 50 percent of my promo pile. In light of the supposed, persistent marginalization of guitar-centered indie rock, there’s no real explaining how Alvvays have managed their elevated status besides writing craftier, catchier songs.

Whether or not Blue Rev is craftier and catchier than its predecessors, it is most definitely more than Alvvays and Antisocialites in every way; though at 14 songs and a shade under 40 minutes, it’s “epic” in the context of Alvvays. Still, from the very first seconds, Alvvays truly sound like a more hi-def, bionic version of themselves. “Pharmacist” pump-fakes with Rankin’s unadorned voice before getting carried away on a tidal surge of glide guitars; yet, lest they be taken for a sparkly shoegaze band, O’Hanley adds a discordant guitar solo towards the end, foreshadowing an album that’s both richer and messier than anything Alvvays had made prior.

“We didn’t want it to sound expensive, like a big, spacious, glossy synth record,” Rankin points out—a legitimate concern, as making a big, spacious, glossy synth record is what ascendant guitar bands tend to do on their third album when they want to reach the “next level.” But it also helps to have these values in mind while reaping the benefits of working with Shawn Everett—a fellow Canadian best known for conjuring a very in-demand brand of big, spacious, glossy and synthy Americana with the likes of the War on Drugs, the Killers, Kacey Musgraves, Local Natives, Big Thief, and Jenny Lewis. Alvvays had self-produced to this point and were eager to use their studio time in a less “militant” way. “Everything must be done before we go in, bang everything out, and use time as wisely as possible,” Rankin says. The most important contribution Everett may have had to the making of Blue Rev came before they ever recorded a note—“He had us in a room, we played the album front to back two times with a few seconds between the songs,” Rankin recalls. “By that point we were out of our own heads.”

The people in Alvvays songs would probably benefit from that as much as the people making them. It’s a lesson perhaps unintentionally coded in the title itself, a popular means of getting some distance from the constant cacophony of mental chatter. “Blue Rev” is a colloquial name for “Rev Energy,” the Canadian equivalent to Sparks or de-weaponized Four Loko—a guarana-infused alcopop that has the appearance and possibly the taste of Windex. “I had pals that wrote to me from Nova Scotia who said that they can’t even look at it,” Rankin jokes. “To be fair to the product, I’ve never had it cold. It was always in someone’s backpack all day.” Granted, that’s about as specific as Rankin’s memories get with Blue Rev itself; that’s kind of the point of Blue Rev and even Blue Rev itself, to put oneself in a zone where one has access to the unfettered imagination that gets dulled by all manner of adult diversions. As to why she chose it for the title, Rankin muses, “It transports me to Cape Breton in my youth when you didn’t have your real brain, you do all the things a teenager does.” Like letting yourself dissociate into a 40-point explosion that rocked the Nova Scotia basketball world. Or at least allowing yourself to dream it into existence.

Ian Cohen is a writer and registered dietitian living in San Diego. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, and Grantland.