Is there a better opener than “Since I Left You”? The title track of The Avalanches debut album, released in Australia on November 27, 2000, and in the U.K. and U.S. the following year, fades in like a the opening of a film. A faint cheer, a strum of a guitar, a groovy beat, traffic noise and a choir of doo-doo-doo-doos lead into the cheery greeting, “Get a drink. Have a good time now. Welcome to paradise.” Then there’s the hook: a high-pitched female voice that seems to be singing, “since I left you, I found a world so new.”
It sounds like the ultimate middle finger to an ex. At least, that’s how I always heard it. In my head, there was this story of a girl who drops the romantic baggage and ends up sipping cocktails on a beach that looks like some 1960s, jet set Mediterranean paradise. But, there’s a catch. That vocal sample is taken from “Everyday,” a 1968 song by The Main Attraction where the lyric is “Since I met you, I found a world so new.” It’s just a regular love song, but when The Avalanches pitched it up and substituted “met” for “left” in the title, it became part of a completely different story.
Since I Left You was a monumental feat in sampling that pieced together a hefty volume of bits from songs, movies and television to create an 18-track album that plays out over the course of one hour with distinct songs that segue in and out of each other like a DJ set and motifs that appear and disappear over the course of multiple tracks.
Upon its release and in the ensuing years, the sheer amount and breadth of those samples has often captured the bulk of the attention surrounding Since I Left You. Part of the hype at the time of the album’s release was that it included a sample of 1983 Madonna hit “Holiday” that was actually cleared by the singer. This past April, when The Avalanches took part in Tim’s Twitter Listening Party, Tony Di Blasi explained that it was actually a sample-of-a-sample taken from “Holiday Rap” by M.C. Miker “G” and Deejay Sven. Over time, there have been multiple attempts in YouTube videos and through the WhoSampled project to uncover everything on the album.
But it’s not the number of samples or the source material that made Since I Left You a masterpiece; it’s what the Avalanches did with it. They told a story with beats, layers of vintage recordings and relatively few words.
The title track came to my ears thanks to someone from Australia who I met through a mixtape swap in an online forum, but it would take months of lurking in Los Angeles record stores to get a copy of the full-length CD. I was hooked by the transition between “Since I Left You” and “Stay Another Season,” the vocals from the former faintly carrying over to the “Holiday” (or, rather, “Holiday Rap”) beat. Here and there, I would catch a snippet that I recognized (Is that Debbie Reynolds on “A Different Feeling”? Damn, I can’t believe they got Polyester in here). Mostly, though, the components of the album were unfamiliar to me and that didn’t matter. Unlike a lot of other sample-based music, I didn’t have a strong desire to track down the source material. I just wanted to listen to all of it like this.
Since I Left You went into the rotation in my car and it stayed there for years. I often let it lapse, listening to it a full two or three times in a row while creeping through the worst of L.A. traffic. It quickly became one of my all-time favorite albums. But, here’s the strange part about that: I’ve listened to Since I Left You on a regular basis for more than 19 years and I can’t recall many of the song titles on the album. I don’t know that I ever could do that.
I was listening to the album the same way I watched movies. Much in the same way that I can tell you what was happening in Goodfellas or Trainspotting when I hear certain songs from those soundtracks, I connect moments in Since I Left You with the images that unfolded in my head while I was listening to it. When the phrase “book a flight tonight” repeated over an electro beat, I would see someone racing through a slick, retro-futuristic airport. “Frontier Psychiatrist,” I imagined, was about flipping through TV channels at 3 a.m., probably high, probably at a key turning point for the protagonist.
When The Avalanches guided listeners through Since I Left You for Tim’s Twitter Listening Party, they tweeted about the theme of the album: “the whole album was loosely about an international search for love as we were making it…A guy following his one true love around the globe, but never quite finding her…always one port behind.”
In retrospect, that makes perfect sense. It’s also not what I heard over innumerable listens. Without that insight, the narrative of Since I Left You wasn’t so obvious. That’s what makes it so interesting too. The Avalanches gave you a story through samples, but how that story unfolded was ultimately a product of the listener’s imagination.