There is a sense of almost ironic justice (and I mean in a sad, dark way) to seeing the name Caribou on the cover of Start Breaking My Heart, a record that, when it was originally released in 2001, had Dan Snaith’s pre-lawsuit name, Manitoba, printed on it. Snaith’s music, especially on his debut, explores a range of emotional focal points: innocence lost, youth slipping away, the impending arrival of maturity (or something close to it). With his new moniker now adorning his first two record’s sleeves, it almost feels as if his earlier work has caught up to where he is now, as if they’ve matured and (through cease and desist orders) lost their youth somewhere along the way.
Start Breaking My Heart is often compared to Boards of Canada, specifically that group’s 1998 debut, Music has the Right to Children. Both artists tapped into that sorrow just beneath the surface, that frustration of being an unsure twenty-something, and explored it through the medium of IDM (a musical moniker I loathe; is dance music unintelligent usually?). Because the IDM scene has always had its forerunners, it could be construed as a compliment that Snaith’s name was increasingly becoming associated with those better known and respected. To be honest, Start Breaking Your Heart broke no real new ground. I’m not saying it’s a bad or poorly approached record; Snaith just hadn’t come into his own yet.
Stylistically, and topically in many respects, Start Breaking My Heart also shares a kindred spirit with Iceland’s Múm. “I’m 9 Today” from Múm’s Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is OK is comparable on more than just a thematic basis with Caribou’s “Children Play Well Together.” The soft analog tones, the glitchy drum lines, the broad scope of emotion portrayed (often without vocals) convey a spectrum of meaning for the listener to pull from. Start Breaking My Heart put Caribou on the map as one of those “soundtrack bands” — the ones we listen to when reading, driving, writing, to help color the impact of our actions without having them forcibly directed by vocals or focused song structures.
The bonus disc accompanying Start Breaking My Heart‘s re-release contains two twelve-inch singles and a liberal handful of B-sides. The disc is almost irrefutable evidence that Snaith’s youthful energy, experimentation and innovation raised his efforts to the status and praise they eventually received. “Anna and Nina” finds him taking full advantage of the acoustic drums that would become essential on Up in Flames, and “Webers” takes that step a bit closer to the achievements of Múm. “If Assholes Could Fly, This Place Would Be an Airport” partially dissects a typical house/garage sound, implanting Snaith’s touches. Throughout the bonus disc we hear elements that Snaith experimented with on Start Breaking My Heart, but compared to Up in Flames, the experimentation here is limited.
“I’ve Lived on a Dirt Road All My Life,” the unforgettable opener to Up in Flames, originally released in 2003, shows that while much had changed in the two years since Start Breaking My Heart, the themes would be similar in many respects. Up in Flames has proven to be one of the few records to throw caution to the wind and emerge unscathed, possibly with a few ribbons and medals tacked on for good measure. No longer would Snaith be dabbling merely with the mediums of IDM, house, U.K. garage (and their limitations). By this point, he had embraced an almost indie-pop sensibility to his reckless compositions, knocking over as many walls as possible in the process.
If songs such as “Children Play Well Together” on Start Breaking My Heart explored the darker element of growing older, the focus of Up in Flames is nostalgic exploration into where we’d been and comparisons to where we woke up everyday. The record could be the soundtrack to a coming-of-age movie — a Sideways with more drugs and parties and worse clothes. The resonating drums, tapestries of guitars, wordless churning vocals, dogs barking, and an overall sense, as Hunter S. Thompson put it, that “our energy would simply prevail” combine into this swell that rises from our speakers. As inseparable as the instruments are from one another, they have also swallowed up the emotional core of the music. The Phil Spector/Brian Wilson school of production had taught Snaith well, this element embellishing a ’60s/’70s feeling throughout the record despite its (albeit lo-fi) contemporary elements.
The extra disc paired with Up in Flames is full of songs that were cut for obvious reasons from the final product, but they are enjoyable in their own respects. “Silver Splinters” is a halfway point between Start Breaking My Heart and Up in Flames, incorporating the tranquility of the earlier and the vision of the latter. “Cherrybomb Part II” somehow manages to feel as though it is intensifying dramatically but still measured and unhurried. It’s a fun addition to the reissue, but other than a few songs, the bonus material is mostly just an extension of themes better explored in Up in Flames.
So, Handsome Dick Manitoba, who sued Snaith over the name, has finally won. Manitoba is no more and has been forced to accept what Dan Snaith has become: an extremely talented songwriter and producer, an uncontrolled visionary and, more recently, Caribou.