Boards of Canada’s continued relevance within the dance community and beyond has much to do, in fact, with its refusal to make us dance. Beginning with the band’s self-produced debut EP, 1995’s Twoism, and continuing through to The Campfire Headphase, the Scottish duo of Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin has created a sound more to do with loss and nostalgia than sweat and pacifiers. Their music is a sedative for a world hurtling toward the next day — damaged melodies warble over cooing analog synths, found sounds, and disjointed decades-old vocal samples. Their much-heralded first full-length, 1999’s Music Has the Right to Children, felt more like a dust-covered photo album than a dance record, sending listeners back into their minds rather than out to the dance floor.
With such a distinct voice, the biggest challenge for the members of Boards of Canada has become themselves. Their quest to follow genre-defining success led them down murky paths for the follow-up to Music Has the Right. Geogaddi (2002) took a decidedly darker approach to their wistful electronica, with the beats heavier and threatening, the melodies more sinister and the media samples as creepy as ever. In that sense, then, The Campfire Headphase is a step backward. From its aquamarine album art to its dusk-lit synthesizers, the album looks and sounds like Boards of Canada’s first LP. You’ll recognize small differences — more guitars, less Carter-era samples — but Sandison and Eoin have returned to the sunny sound that took them from little-known North Country audiophiles to All Tomorrow’s Parties headliners.
The duo’s hesitancy, though, doesn’t diminish Campfire’s real pleasures. “Chromakey Dreamcoat” sends a single descending acoustic guitar line through a wash of tape hiss and an irresistibly retro hip-hop beat, and “84 Pontiac Dream” patches together four dusty samples into a melody as eerie as it is brilliant. On a record full of familiar pleasures, “Dayvan Cowboy” is Campfire’s one true progressive moment. Wayward synths build effortlessly before coalescing at the two-minute mark into stark tremolo guitar and gorgeous, compassionate strings. Ironically, it’s one of Boards of Canada’s most straightforward — and most beautiful — songs.
Still, as the band’s third full-length, Campfire does little to surprise. Though we ask a lot of Boards of Canada — classic records, drug-free nostalgic hallucinations — sonic progression is an issue every band has to tackle. With The Campfire Headphase, Boards of Canada has taken the easy route down memory lane, giving us déjà vu all over again.