The last few Animal Collective records were so haywire that things regrettably got lost in the chaos. 2012’s ‘Centipede Hz’ was overloaded by digital cluster and red-raw shouting that it sounded like aliens had formed a garage band. Many songs on the weirder ‘Painting With’ (2016) sounded like those ETs had discovered ‘shrooms.
The Baltimore group have a habit of leaning so heavily into their oddball proclivities that experimentalism comes at the expense of tunes. Their second audio-visual album, 2018’s ‘Tangerine Reef’ – which NME branded “unlistenable” – is one example of this. Besides moments of promise (such as ‘Centipede Hz’’s hypnotic raga, ‘Wide Eyed’), there haven’t been many extensions of the mellifluous, twisted psych-pop crusades that helped the band break through in 2009 with ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’.
Animal Collective have always worked best when they walk the tightrope between left-field experiments and hooky accessibility. That’s why it’s a relief to hear Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Deakin and Geologist retread more of the palatable sounds associated with their peak popularity in the mid-late ‘00s. On their 11th album, the group hark to the more-ish melodies of ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ and the hymnal-like meditations of 2005’s ‘Feels’ for a blissful collection.
‘Dragon Slayer’ introduces the album’s mellower makeup, with cymbal taps, cascading pan pipe-FX synths and twittering harmonies that herald a fresh dawn. As zither-style plucks, vibraphone clangs and brawnier beats take hold beneath chamber-pop singing, it sounds like Animal Collective have mixed their DNA with mid-career Grizzly Bear.
These pastoral, impressionistic sounds pepper the album, including on slumbering closer ‘Royal And Desire’. The propellant ‘Cherokee’, which brims with jazz beats and muted, proggy space-rock riffs, finds North Carolina resident Avey Tare sound enriched by his adopted landscape, singing: “Driving back from Cherokee / Dreaming things”. It’s enough to inspire your own road trip.
That lyric notwithstanding, there’s little to go on, thematically, with ‘Time Skiffs’, other than the feeling that the music evokes: there is an overarching sense of transcendence throughout. ‘Prester John’ lifts you, with its ornate organs and its priestly Beach Boys-style harmonies, before morphing into abstract noises of brass and electronic detritus. If its typically elliptical lyrics are about a belief system breaking down (the title references a Christian legend), then the song works well as the sound of dismantlement.
‘Time Skiffs’ is a gorgeous, exploratory album, containing some of the greatest creations this curious lot have turned in for years.
Release date: February 4
Record label: Domino Recording Company