algorithm spirits: why Rachael Lavelle's "Big Dreams" is the Fourth Best album of 2023

If you really wanted, you could make the argument that this is the album Enya would make if she knew who Dril was.

algorithm spirits: why Rachael Lavelle's "Big Dreams" is the Fourth Best album of 2023
from the music video to the title track Big Dreams directed by Bob Gallagher

Rachael Lavelle's album Big Dreams is the Fourth Best Irish Album of The Year, 2023. An inevitability from the first time I saw her perform live, in an amphiteatre made out of a quarry in Ballykeefe in one of the pandemic's waning phases. She shattered the long, long wait to see live music again with one of Ireland's most captivating live shows - her voice uniquely powerful, and her songwriting razor-sharp, precise; soft pads and barely-existing drum machines. For almost four years, the sole single from the artist was the record's centrepiece, Perpetual Party, and if you wanted more, you'd have to dig through YouTube in the hopes of finding the breadcrumb trail. COVID filming guidelines. Empty rooms and government grants.

every small venue in the country was its own private Late Late Show for their local set during the COVID days - some day far into the future maybe I'll do a top ten list of livestreams squirrelled away on my USB drive and the Other Voices DMCA requests I received

The wait for the work to break through makes sense, however. Some of it was tied up in the uncomfortable misery of being an independent artist in this day and age - shopping records to labels who don't know what to do with them, and the intimidation and fear of self-releasing something brimming with this potential. Yet I'd also say the delay makes artistic sense. In many ways nothing else sounds as much like what that tail end of 2023 felt to be in - Big Dreams is an extremely online work of art. 

Let Me Unlock Your Full Potential is named after a YouTube ad that Lavelle paints as an angelic visitation or lucid dream. The interlude My Simple Pleasures has a text-to-speech read the profile of Hinge randos ("The key to my heart is: chicken fillet rolls and Fanta"). Throughout the album, there's the guardian angel voice of actual Luas announcer Doireann Ní Bhriain, speaking in almost the exact cadence the Irish accent of Siri. Yet the album is so delicately textured, so ethereal - the word "vapour" keeps coming to mind, and if you really wanted you could make the argument that this is the album Enya would make if she knew who Dril was - it lands the joke while also feeling deeply serious. It captures the dissonance, the alienation, the subsurface tension in it all. 

There's probably another thousand words to spill on the album's visuals - Marina Abramović's Rest Energy is flipped into probably the best Irish music video in living memory here.

There's a real desire for transcendence, mirrored in the hundreds of almost-anonymous dating profiles the average Irish twenty-to-thirty-something will tumble through and the wellness grifters that roam the internet. It captures the dreamlike surreality of the hundreds of weird, soul-crushing insecurities that I only become aware of when my girlfriend shows me the weirdest TikToks and Instagram reels that seem to surface to her for no reason other than her gender, people selling courses about how to massage aging out of their faces or offer astrological certainty of their deepest desires. The spaciousness and otherworldliness of the album sticks with me in other ways too - I thought of Lavelle's album when I stumbled upon an army of GPT-armed Twitter spambots assembling themselves ahead of the American election year, all mumbling similar but different empty vaporous vignettes:

A collection of Twitter bots, all verified accounts posing as real humans, tweeting strangely similar prose to one another describing fantastical landscapes. An example: Amidst exotic orchids, a hummingbird ballet unfolds as these tiny avian acrobats dart from bloom to bloom. The vibrant colors of the orchids provide a stunning backdrop to nature's miniature aerial performance. The hummingbird ballet is a celebration of agility and elegance in the heart of a tropical garden.
There are literally thousands of these. And they're all paying Elon eight dollars a month?

The album usually hums minimal - at times wide-open atmospheres, bright synth pads, room for meandering flutes, clarinets and saxophones, at times mechancial and closing in, percussive, digital - which makes Night Train's transformation into a stone-cold banger so unreal. The spaciousness is mirrored in the songwriting - Lavelle and Ní Bhriain's voices are centred but often come in short, vivid bursts; one track's deeply memorable closing lines "I am lost on an elliptical machine - dream big, eat clean".

There's a touch of the Extremely Online in that exactitude - which I have struggled to completely nail down. I could offer a series of URLs that could sum up the sensation, but very few words. Night Train has that line "Send me a suitor, help me computer" and for some reason it reminded me of - of all things - Ryan Broderick's essay Why Does Every Website Have A Human Remains Scandal?

"[...] If you think about it - the internet is kind of like a spiritual plane itself, right? Like we use it to access this invisible world that's only limited by our imaginations, so maybe what it is is people who are drawn to some kind of higher power also really love to use the internet, but it could also be that, you know, teenagers are really fucking stupid."

In many ways, this album is a revealing subject for one of my first pieces for Fourth Best. I haven't figured out if this site is going to be on TikTok yet, and I feel like it boils down into three separate anxieties. Ultimately, most of it is I don't want to have to care about the metrics of this project's success, to put myself in the mindset of what does well on the site and what doesn't. Where AI systems have learned to optimise around keeping people watching, with limited actual human understanding of what makes their decisions and what kind of proxies it identifies, there's so many anecdotes about what does and doesn't work about the system. The way that people try to figure out what words you can and can't say - like the cringe-inducing ways that people address death with euphemisms like "unalive" - is something that resembles superstition or folklore more than computer science or marketing.

That algorithm spirit seems to hover in Big Dreams, along with the many other complexities folded within it; love, death, loneliness, change. It's a powerful meditation on this strange age we've found ourselves in.

I am open to the possibilities.