Feats of Strength: The Avalanches

Every year brings some new rumor that The Avalanches are working on a new album, and each year we hold out hope that one day these rumors hold true.  It’s perfectly understandable, considering how beloved their debut (and so far only) album Since I Left You was.  I remember they first grabbed my attention with the memorable video for “Frontier Psychiatrist”, from back in the days when MTV2 showed music videos (yes, I’m of that rare age where I mourn the philosophical changes of both MTV (Original Recipe) and MTV2).  The concept was simple but genius: have each sample, no matter how esoteric or outlandish, performed by live actors as if part of some bizarre variety show.

It wasn’t until years later that I found out that they created another music video, this one for the title track.  While “Frontier Psychiatrist” has its charms and still makes me chuckle after all these years, in terms of sheer brilliance “Since I Left You” has it beat.  It begins with two coal miners stuck deep underground, when the faint strains of distant music begin to drift in, guiding the miners to a passageway out of the shaft.  The visual component perfectly captures the audio shift in the song, as the moment the miners open the trap door, the music swells to fully envelop the room.  We are then transported from a bleak world of gritty black-and-white to a much more modern dance style full of vibrancy and life, as the miners are greeted by two lovely female ballet dancer counterparts.

It’s at this point that we get to the main action of the video, as one of the miners seizes the moment and begins to perform an intricate and elegant dance, belying the expectations one would expect from his gruff appearance.  In that sense, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the Fatboy Slim video “Weapon of Choice”, which was released a few months before.  The dance of the miner captures the elation felt in both the music and the vocals; though the lyrics are “since I left you, I found the world so new”, the action focuses on the euphoric emotion and not the specific act (at least at first).

Everything seems to be going so well, but unfortunately reality has to intrude.  The other miner who stays on the sidelines begins to fade out, and he has to leave his friend behind.  The video ends with the epilogue of the returned miner informing us “Three days later, they dug me out; I never saw Arthur again.  But I’ll bet wherever he’s gone, he’s having a damn good time.”  It’s a melancholic twist that nonetheless maintains a certain sweetness, because even though his friend is gone, he can still remember that last moment of bliss.

Now knowing the full context of the video, the events depicted take on a new meaning.  It’s almost certain that the miraculous discovery of the secret portal is representative of the moment that the two miners lose consciousness, and that the events depicted in the dance studio are some sort of hallucination.  Even though this is purely in the realm of the imaginary, there are still touches that help ground the scene and keep it as realistic as possible.  One example is the inclusion of the two judges, who act as both witnesses to the events and as an audience surrogate.  Unlike the Christopher Walken/Fatboy Slim video, it seems in this case that there seems to be an interaction with the outside world.

However, it is when you consider the hallucination framing that you realize the  true extent of the heartbreaking nature of the surviving minor.  Notice how unsure he is of himself and his reluctance to join in, even though it’s clear he feels a strong urge to participate.  Even when the beautiful girl comes over to provide some gentle encouragement, he still can’t get over his self-doubt to fully join in and instead remains on the sideline providing the occasional tambourine beat.  This means that even in his fantasies, the surviving miner still retains all his insecurities and can’t indulge in his desire to be happy.  For some people, this hits a little close to home.

Even considering this probability, one can still take the ending as a joyous one if the lyrics are considered once again–“since I left you, I found the world so new.”  We can hope that as the surviving miner went on to live long after the events depicted in the video, that perhaps he took to heart the lesson that his departed friend taught him, that to find happiness one must take the opportunity and seize it.  It’s not just his friend that’s having a damn good time, but hopefully the survivor as well.

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