The picture of the sleeve on this page is nowhere near big enough. Go look it up online, as big as you can, and stare at it very hard. See how, as you try to focus on any one part of the tessellated pattern, the sections in the periphery of your vision shift and undulate, almost alive, making it impossible to pin the image down in your mind?
Right. Sadly for me, that’s probably given you a much better idea about the nature of the new Animal Collective album than the next 700 words will.
For while Baltimore avant-gardists AC have always been tricksy melders and magpies of genres and styles, on their eighth album, they’ve achieved musical alchemy and created something that is much more than the sum of its parts. ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ is a crate-digging, blog-reading, lost treasure-unearthing music nerd’s world of influences distilled into something that anyone, people who don’t even know what a blog is, can get immediately, and keep on getting at different levels. Take standout track ‘Summertime Clothes’, a sun-stroked piece of bio-mechanical mongrel pop with a Neu!-ish rhythm and the feel of Grandaddy in its spacey winsomeness: you could analyse it for hours. But you really don’t need to.
Animal Collective always fitted uncomfortably in the freak-folk camp, and nowadays they share far more sonically with Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips, Of Montreal or the freakazoid organic electropop of Leila, Björk collaborators Matmos or Warp’s weirdest corners. Whereas early albums like ‘Here Comes The Indian’ were twisted, tortured things with one toe in the water of American folk, by 2004’s ‘Sung Tongs’, their sound was less harsh, but still crammed with ululations, barks and lolling, lilting, leering collages that complexified to unbearable mind-filling intensity before lulling into gentle ebbs. They made you work for their moments of transcendence.
Still, though, their unfeigned oddness was occasionally tainted by puerile surreality, or the odd burst of yawnsome pastoral (or “fuckin’ canoeing music” – Holy Ghost Revival’s one gift to the world, that term). Their most recent efforts, ‘Strawberry Jam’ and Panda Bear’s solo opus ‘Person Pitch’, continued the ascent into accessibility, with any remaining folk influence becoming less obvious in favour of a more playful, more relaxed, less try-hard spaced-out sound.
‘Merriweather…’, their psych-pop pinnacle, shares the simultaneous relentless complexity and instant simplicity of the best Of Montreal albums, but where Kevin Barnes’ last effort got lost in its clever-clever weirdness, shifting rhythms and textures in a way that felt like standing onboard a bus going down a mountain, Animal Collective’s is an easy, good-natured beast. ‘Guy’s Eyes’ in particular nails their wholesome, positive brand of psychedelia. It’s like, to reluctantly pull on the tiredest of psychedelic clichés, they swapped the acid for ecstasy (although really, they probably opted for a nice cup of tea).
The MDMAzement is strongest on ‘My Girls’, where Panda Bear, aka Noah Lennox, concocts a starry-eyed hymn to nest-building, cooing about “four walls and adobe slats for my girls”. It’s housey in both senses of the word, with an insistent synth line borrowed from Frankie Knuckles’ club classic ‘Your Love’ (and indeed, the song used to be called ‘House’ – Do. You. See.), and a great euphoric “whoo” on the refrain.
There’s a beaty bent through the whole album, although this is dance music hammered together from the weirdest of materials; ‘Lion In A Coma’ fashions a funky shuffle from a medieval rhythm and a didgeridoo. ‘In The Flowers’ starts with a long, oscillating Eno-esque intro before it’s engulfed in a wall of radiating ambient noise and a motorik beat, as Avey Tare fashions a new futurist folklore of kinetic energy, imagining “A dancer high in a field from her movement… I couldn’t stop that spinning force I felt in me”.
There are moments when they still trip off into self-indulgence: ‘Also Frightened’ is dreamy, a tribal, woozy waltzing that recalls CocoRosie via Björk, but stretches out just that little too long. ‘Bluish’ edges
a tiptoe too far into Fleet Foxes territory, but these are tiny moments in an album that’s overwhelmingly rich in invention and imagination.
‘Brothersport’ rounds it off perfectly, a resplendent orgy of Afrobeat pop with touches of hard house, like Orbital double-dropping with Fela Kuti or Vampire Weekend in space. It ends in radiant, My Morning Jacket-style harmonies and leaves you wondering what happened to your mind and ears.Put the album on again. Listen hard. Focus on each sound, analyse it, pin it down, pull it apart. It’ll just shift under your gaze and run off laughing. Or you could just run with it.