Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Boards Of Canada’s “Whitewater” captures the duo when its sound evoked wistful nostalgia

Illustration for article titled Boards Of Canada’s “Whitewater” captures the duo when its sound evoked wistful nostalgia

In Hear ThisA.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing.


After weeks of typically cryptic hints about the forthcoming Tomorrow’s Harvest, Boards Of Canada recently debuted a tease titled “Reach For The Dead”—its first new song in nearly eight years. Like the name suggests, the tune and its accompanying video are melancholy and elusive, with barren desert scenes answered by ghostly, ebbing swells of synth. The sense of euphoria created by the skittering drumbeat is frustratingly short-lived; the impression it leaves behind is mostly longing for more. In short, it’s right inside the Boards Of Canada wheelhouse—the feeling of warmly looking back on the past from a cold future—except on “Reach For The Dead,” that feeling more closely resembles mourning.

It wasn’t always like that. The electronic duo started out mining analog synths, old nature film specials, and LSD-drenched imagery to create a sense of hallucinatory nostalgia, like the warping of childhood memories by a lot of really good drugs. Over time, particularly beginning with 2002’s Geogaddi, that trip turned slightly creepy. You’ll find acres of Internet real estate devoted to BOC fans speculating on the many occult references and twisted narratives supposedly buried beneath the layers of that album and its follow-up, 2005’s The Campfire Headphase. But early on there was a simple wistfulness to the group’s sound that’s become increasingly distant, as it’s become more emotionally complex.

Take “Whitewater,” a track from the 1996 odds-and-ends compilation Boc Maxima. Over an insistent, echoing snare drum and melting synth-brass that evokes an old science show that’s been left out in the sun, brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin layer in a sampled monologue from an old Sesame Street: “When I’m with a friend, then I feel proud, and there’s a Proud Me…. But when my friend has to go home, then I feel a little sad, so I turn into the Sad Me” says a child’s voice, pitch-shifted and deepened until it resembles an adult’s. As its syllables loop and clip in rhythm to the beat, it begins to seem like an internal monologue—the chattering of the fragile kid still inside every grown-up, perhaps. Or maybe that’s just the Rorschach interpretation. Whatever its actual intention, the impression of humanity it creates is like a thematic bookend for “Reach For The Dead,” and a timely reminder of BOC’s capacity for creating rich emotion with mechanical sounds.