Animal Collective – ‘Centipede HZ’

A gleeful mess of strangled electro

There will be two popular responses to Animal Collective’s ninth LP. The first – the one that has accompanied each and every brain-fart the Baltimorean quartet have issued since 2004’s ‘Sung Tongs’ – is gushing, knee-jerk (and not always unjustified) praise. That much almost goes without saying. The second, no less inevitably, will be paroxysms of outrage and disappointment: virgin territory for the blogosphere’s most feted band. On the messageboards, the reckoning has already begun: ‘Centipede Hz’ is a cluttered and incoherent mess, a sub-MGMT slab of self-regarding weirdness. Hell, even its artwork isn’t as cool as ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’’s. But then, that’s the internet for you – if there’s one thing it loves more than crowing about being into a band before they got popular, it’s crowing about how shit popularity has made them. Animal Collective, for their sins, are loved best by the ficklest audience out there, and their recent influx of casual fans has made them an obvious target.

In truth, however, not a note of ‘Centipede Hz’ panders to the ‘My Girls’ crowd. It’s all relative, of course: next to 2010’s audio/visual confusathon ‘ODDSAC’ or this year’s ‘Transverse Temporal Gyrus’ EP, this album is immediate like a Barney The Dinosaur song. But as the ‘proper’ follow-up to their big commercial breakthrough, it’s tantamount to determinedly shooing all their newfound alt-bros away with a broom.

Where ‘Merriweather…’ was serene, ‘Centipede Hz’ is schizophrenic; a custard pie of polyrhythms, jarring effects and melodic tangents. It’s gleefully launched into the listener’s face by opener ‘Moonjock’, a “song” with so many competing ideas stacked atop its insistently simple one-note motif, you worry that the entire edifice will topple like a Jenga tower, Instead, after a few spins, figuring out what’s going becomes a kind of compulsion. In that sense, it’s a microcosm of the entire album: it keeps bringing you back, and ultimately rewards your persistence.

Unlike previous AC records – which have been composed nebulously over email – this one was written with all four members in the room. It’s a stretch to describe it as a garage-band aesthetic, but the likes of ‘Today’s Supernatural’ and ‘Applesauce’ do have a more naturalistic vibe, even if, on first listen, they sound like two or three bands playing in frustrating near-synchronicity. The last album had its roots in Panda Bear’s solo work, but this one isn’t so easily pigeonholed: it veers from nautical-sounding Van Dyke Parks-isms (the charmingly loopy ‘Rosie Oh’) to the strangled electro of ‘Monkey Riches’, via just about every point in between.

The album doesn’t ‘belong’ to any one member, but its rawer, more spontaneous philosophy is reminiscent of 2007’s ‘Strawberry Jam’, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that ‘Centipede Hz’ marks the return to the group of Josh ‘Deakin’ Dibb for the first time since that record. His key contribution here is ‘Wide Eyed’, a lysergic electronic raga he sits yogi-like at the centre of, dispensing cryptic observations such as “Though I’m overwhelmed at times/I find I’m less afraid of change”. Like most of the songs – tenuously linked by intervals of static and radio station idents – it sounds like it began long before you tuned in, and will continue long after you leave.

One shouldn’t read too much into album covers, of course, but there’s a metaphor here, and we’re going to mine it. Like the music it contained, ‘Merriweather…’’s optical illusion was subtle, shimmering and precise. ‘Centipede Hz’’s crudely-drawn caricature of the famous Stones logo is similarly revealing: a flawed and imperfect jumble of garish colours and disconnected sensations, the work of what is technically a rock band, albeit one operating far outside the usual conventions. It’s chaotic and confounding. It will frustrate as much as it delights. And no, not everything they throw at the wall manages to stick. But my, what a lovely mess they’ve made.

Barry Nicolson