It’s been a gloomy few years since Alvvays’ last album, and Molly Rankin has had enough. “I don’t necessarily want to pivot into something brand-new and wear a shiny suit and try and make it onto the radio,” observes the Toronto-based singer-songwriter, whose band will return on Oct. 7 with their third LP, Blue Rev. “I mean, I will always have some songs about people dying or walking into a lake or what have you. But I’m ready for some levity.”
Fans of Alvvays’ instant-classic 2014 debut and their 2017 follow-up, Antisocialites, already know that Rankin is one of her generation’s most sparkling lyricists, tracing tender feelings with perfectly understated wit set to bittersweet indie-pop melodies. There’s plenty of that classic Alvvays sound on Blue Rev, as heard on lead single “Pharmacist,” which Rankin describes as rooted in her nostalgia for Cape Breton, the part of Nova Scotia where she and keyboardist Kerri MacLellan grew up.
But there are also songs that cut with a new sharpness and bounce with a new energy, like “Very Online Guy” — a New Wave satire of a character you’d never have heard about on their earlier records — and the surefire live favorite “Pomeranian Spinster” (“I don’t want to be nice/I don’t want your advice on the run in my tights/I’m going to get what I want, I don’t care who it hurts”).
Rankin calls “Pomeranian Spinster” “probably my most prickly song.” “Maybe it’s a shy person talking to themselves in the mirror,” she says, before remembering a better comparison point: “You know in Seinfeld when George has all these comebacks for this person and he brings it up at the board meeting two days later and everyone is really bothered by it?”
Her vocal take on that song reflects the exhilarated energy of the first in-person session they held for Blue Rev, when vaccines allowed her, MacLellan, and guitarist/co-writer Alec O’Hanley to gather at last in the summer of 2021. “Nothing I ever did after that had the same vibe, so we ended up keeping it, even though there’s some gibberish in there,” Rankin says.
Before getting to that moment of release, Alvvays went through more than a year of frustration, like most musicians, starting in early 2020. They’d just opened for the Strokes in Vancouver and Seattle — a dream for Rankin and MacLellan, both lifelong fans of the New York band — and were headed next to Los Angeles, where they had also booked some time to record at the historic Sunset Sound studio that spring. When the pandemic hit, they were forced to flee back home to Canada. “We were just running through the airport trying to get to free healthcare, basically,” Rankin recalls wryly.
Stuck in Toronto, Rankin did what she knows best, imagining other lives and situations to get out of her own head. Playing in her basement with a synth and guitar, she sketched out songs like “Velveteen,” a wry portrait of a suspicious lover (“Is she a perfect 10?/Have you found Christ again?”), and “After the Earthquake,” inspired by a Haruki Murakami short-story collection, before bringing in O’Hanley to develop each idea further.
“I find it really fun to make these tiny little movies in my mind,” she says. “I’m a pretty sensitive person, so I feel a lot of feelings, and I try and channel that into the little scenarios that I make. But I don’t feel like my life is all that wild or exciting. To me, it’s more entertaining to create a different universe.”
In the fall of 2021, the band was able to go to L.A. to play a make-up date with the Strokes and record with producer and mixing engineer Shawn Everett (Kacey Musgraves, the Killers, King Princess). “He’s Canadian, too, which is hilarious,” Rankin says. “We had all these inside Canada reference jokes and this hilarious overlap that we didn’t know existed. He’s a really fun, open-minded, zany guy.”
Bass player Abbey Blackwell joined the band around this time through longtime Alvvays drummer Sheridan Riley, who was rooming with her in Seattle. “We were looking for a bass player who could learn three records in a really short amount of time and also have their first show be an arena show with the Strokes,” Rankin says. “She walked in and it worked out.”
Underneath the humor and hum of Blue Rev are Rankin’s memories of Cape Breton, where she grew up as part of a celebrated musical family. “The culture there is very unique in that Kerri and I spent the majority of our youth at Celtic square dances with elderly people,” she says. “I don’t know. I guess I do miss Cape Breton a lot.”
The most resonant song on the album, for her, is “Belinda Says,” whose lyrics pair a longing for escape with a winking reference to Eighties pop (“Belinda says that heaven is a place on earth, well, so is hell.”) That song’s lyrics also contain the title of the album, a phrase whose soft, dreamy tone conceals a more specific memory from her hometown, where teens would go to dances at drained hockey rinks.
“Blue Rev was a wine cooler that my peers and I drank at rink dances and in graveyards,” Rankin says. “It really is the taste of my youth in a way. It’s reminiscent of cough syrup. I’ve actually never had a cold one, because it was always someone’s brother supplying these things to us.”
As we speak over Zoom, Rankin is preparing for Alvvays’ first full tour since 2019, kicking off Oct. 14 in Chicago. “There’s Pelicans everywhere in this apartment,” she says, meaning Pelican brand gear cases, “and there’s a carpenter out back replacing a deck, and I’m trying to figure out what to put on for a playlist for him. I’m really stressed out about it.”
The most purely sweet moment on Blue Rev is a gently surging love song called “Many Mirrors.” “That’s a hopeful song about getting through whatever obstacles and rough times together, and coming out of it on the other side, looking at each other, being amazed that we’re still there,” she says. “It makes me feel good when I think about our band… It surprises me all the time, but here we are.”