Animal Collective – ‘Time Skiffs’ review: adventurers get back on the right track

After a few wobbly releases (and one that was literally unlistenable), the beloved Baltimore band have found their footing again

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.

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‘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.

Details

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Release date: February 4

Record label: Domino Recording Company

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