Lost in the Bewilderness

Animal Collective's latest mixes dizzying highs with frustrating dog-paddles

In an interview conducted in 2003 with the NYC-by-way-of-Maryland Animal Collective (the group now roams somewhere between Brooklyn, D.C., and Portugal), the band's two main songwriters, Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and Avey Tare (Dave Portner), divulged to me their philosophy of approaching vocals, seeing it as just another instrument, as texture, as something to mask, manipulate, de-emphasize, undercut. "We didn't want the vocals to sit on top," Avey said, so with band members Geologist (Brian Weltz) and Deakin (Josh Dibb), they always put the sound first. But four years and three albums on from that moment, their words have been steadily rising and clarifying in the mix, so that on the Collective's sixth full-length, Strawberry Jam, not only can you read along—on first single "Peacebone"—with printed lyrics about how "an obsession with the past is like a dead fly," but also clearly hear that "only a few things are related to the 'old times.'"

True that, as the band barely resembles what they did last time around, or the time before that. As often as the Animal Collective has been painted as willfully naïf, with reviews commenting on their "immature euphoria" and "celebration of innocence," they've always been grown- ass men when it comes to capturing their sonic ideas, flashing a record geek's knowledge of everyone from Simon and Garfunkel to Burger/Ink, yet shuffling it deftly and expertly so as to keep your ears constantly bewildered and exhilarated.

To call Strawberry Jam the Collective's poppiest album is a misnomer: Just because there's an onslaught of verbiage and weird noises (like most pop these days) does not a pop album make. It is their most oxymoronic, though. Recorded entirely on analog tape out in the desert, the songs are weirdly digital, squiggly, and processed. "Unsolved Mysteries" is dizzying, both claustrophobic and stroboscopic, full of flanged guitar, bubbles bursting, and a wheeling calliope while Avey sings about Jack the Ripper. But while didactically dense throughout, the band sounds strangely threadbare sonically. On earlier albums like Here Comes the Indian and Sung Tongs, their ideas flew past at a pace both furious and infuriating; now, they stagnate and crawl. Terry Riley's organ-based reed streams are replicated in "1," but the band merely dog-paddles in it. Back-end songs like "Fireworks" and "Derek" sound similarly stuck in place.

The peaks are high, though. "For Reverend Green" is the most stadium-ready version of Animal Collective's long-mastered technique of tom-propelled, infinitely sustained euphoric release. And out of an intestinal mess of flummoxing squawks and frequencies, "Peacebone" gleans a centralized throb while Avey sings about culinary tropes like broccoli, mildewed rice, and his wife's home-cooking; he then admits, "It's not my words that you should follow/It's your insides."


Animal Collective play Webster Hall September 30 and October 1, websterhall.com

 
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