It took five years for Alvvays to release a follow-up to their critically acclaimed 2017 album Antisocialites, but the Toronto-based band didn’t intend to be away for quite so long. The odyssey to get to their third album, Blue Rev (out now via Polyvinyl and Transgressive), was rife with setbacks and challenges. In fact, Alvvays had planned for Blue Rev to come out shortly after Antisocialites.
“We were hoping to get a jump on it, because there was such a long gap between our first two [records],” vocalist Molly Rankin tells SPIN from her home in Toronto.
Rankin and lead guitarist/co-songwriter/significant other Alec O’Hanley began writing the album in 2018, but the band — which generally doesn’t write on the road — was constantly touring in support of their second record. Then Rankin’s apartment was broken into while she was outside during a heat wave, with the thief stealing a recorder from her bed containing “hundreds of hours” of recordings that Rankin was considering for the new album.
“Usually [melodies] just get stuck in my head and I can regurgitate if need be, so I don’t think I’ve lost a ton of magic in all of those demos,” she says. “But I do wonder where they are. Are they in a sewer somewhere on a memory card or are they in a pawn shop in Ontario somewhere? Who knows? It could be potentially very embarrassing.”
But the biggest setback turned out to be the pandemic.
Just when the band had booked studio time in Los Angeles and Seattle, planning to record after their mini tour with The Strokes, Alvvays was ordered to go back home to Canada (except US-based drummer Sheridan Riley). The band (sans Riley) did the best they could to work on Blue Rev in Rankin and O’Hanley’s basement, with keyboardist Kerri MacLellan joining a couple of nights per week after the lockdowns began to lessen.
The pandemic sessions also allowed the band to let loose during such an emotionally heavy time. Besides writing Blue Rev, the trio would cover ’90s pop ballads, goofily dress up in wigs, and play cards, finding catharsis in their reunion.
Once things started opening up, Riley made their way to Canada and all seemed to be going smoothly… until bassist and co-founder Brian Murphy left in 2021 right when Alvvays was about to embark on the remaining rescheduled dates for their tour with The Strokes. Luckily, the band found a quick replacement in Riley’s roommate, Abbey Blackwell.
Despite the changes — like working with six-time Grammy-winning producer Shawn Everett (The Killers, Kacey Musgraves) for the first time — Alvvays kept its dreamy, shoegaze-leaning sound for Blue Rev. In many ways, the LA-based Canadian Everett was the perfect fit.
“I think that we were big fans of just the landscape he creates with music,” Rankin says, recalling that Everett was initially only available to produce half of the album because he’s in such high demand — but ultimately deciding to do the entire thing once recording began. “I think he has such a grasp of the science of audio as well where he knows how to expand things and give things space. It’s just a really unique skill to be an artist and a scientist at once.”
This time around, Rankin wanted to make another change by keeping things lyrically lighter than the previous two records. The band’s debut had gut-wrenching songs about heartbreak (some using drowning in a river as a metaphor leaving a relationship behind), whereas Antisocialites used the metaphor of relationships falling apart for the band’s fraught period where they considered parting ways.
While there are certain songs on Blue Rev that touch on the subject (“Easy On Your Own?”), Rankin was much more interested in exploring her wry sense of humor. The new wave-inspired “Very Online Guy” is a sarcastic ode to “reply guys” who are desperate for attention on the internet. The jangly “Pomeranian Spinster” feels like hearing the thoughts of someone reciting everything they wish they could say to someone who’s ticked them off.
“I’ve always really liked musicians who could poke fun at themselves — or if the lyrical subject matter is extremely dark, there are sometimes moments of humor to balance that out,” Rankin says. “I think there’s also a maritime east coast thing where things get so bleak in the winter, or there’s a lot of tragedy that happens out there, and people get by with music and humor. You could meet someone whose whole family died in a house fire and they could never mention it and just be the funniest person in the village. It’s just this skill or this coping mechanism. I think if we ever hung out in person, you’d probably notice that’s a tool I readily whip out.”
But besides the winking humor, Blue Rev explores memories from Rankin’s hometown, Inverness County in Cape Breton. There’s the odd feeling of having to confront someone from your past (“Pharmacist”), being desperate to take the last train out of town and leaving home for good (“Bored in Bristol”), and starting anew in an imagined story about a pregnant woman leaving “with nothing in [her] pocket.”
“You just realize that it’s never really home again in a certain way — the home that you knew,” Rankin says. “Grappling with that loss and also rekindling your love of a place is just a really complicated space to occupy, and the process is pretty beautiful.”
Arguably one of the most heartfelt tracks on Blue Rev is “Many Mirrors,” which may initially seem like a love song about Rankin’s relationship with O’Hanley retaining its strength throughout the challenges, but also fits as a narrative for the band still standing after facing all of the bumps along the way.
“That song is a great description of everything that I’ve been through, Alec’s been through and our band too,” Rankin explains. “Also, that one is a little bit of Alec’s baby, where he brought it to me and I put a chorus on it. It was just a nice sentiment to describe our journey.”