By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
By Steve Weinstein
By Brian McManus
By Brian McManus
By Dan McQuade
By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
How my dad heard about Merriweather Post Pavilion before it even came out, I'm not sure, but he did. He asked me if I'd heard it—I had. He asked me if I could play it for him—I could. Two minutes into "In the Flowers," the album's opening track, his face soured. I told him I liked it. "Sure," he said. "It's like nothing I've ever heard before. But there's too much reverb."
Of all the available opinions on the most critically adored album of 2009 (topping this poll, among several others), Dad's is still my favorite—the one that sums up Animal Collective's function as a wedge, both stylistic and generational; the one that encapsulates the distance between the band's fans (who call MPP "universal" and "pop") and the other 90 percent of the music-listening public (who call it "weird" or "annoying," if they bother to call it anything at all).
I think the people who liked MPP liked it because it's a musically progressive record with a generous outlook on life. (It really is that simple.) The lyrics detail common—though I don't want to say "universal"—themes: There's a nostalgic song ("In the Flowers"), a song about providing for your family ("My Girls"), a song about falling in love again ("Bluish"), and a song about moving on after the death of a parent ("Brother Sport"). These topics aren't obscure, and neither is the language the band use to talk about them (except the oft-repeated "My Girls" image of "four walls and adobe slabs," which always sounded precious and unnecessary—and I love Southwestern-style architecture).
MPP's music is expansive and dramatic: '60s-style folk and psych-pop plunged into the depths of dub and techno; alternately cool-headed and hysterical; shimmery and consistent in sound; melodically simple and rhythmically outgoing. The band—at this point, three guys with sequencers and samplers, all about 30 years old—craft a great, big, scary world for themselves and then wander around in it like lost puppies. They seem to embrace the intuitive and reject the intellectual, but the reality is that their music is precise and self-aware, and that's why it works: They convincingly give the sense that the sounds they make are just outside their control. Histrionics are their craft. If there were good reasons to compare Animal Collective to the Beach Boys, they surfaced on MPP: Like "Wouldn't It Be Nice," this is roomy, sophisticated music about being an adult pretending to be a kid singing about adulthood.
The album's lyrical scope is limited and its tone is self-centered, but it serves its concerns with empathy and honor. When I first heard "Lust for Life"—a cornerstone of San Francisco surf-pop band Girls' Album—I immediately thought of "My Girls." Both songs are by men around the age of 30. Both are about, roughly, keeping it simple. Both have daringly bad lyrical hooks: In "My Girls," "I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls"; in "Lust For Life," "I wish I had a pizza and a bottle of wine." (As I type this, I'm having the same feeling I often have when listening to pop music: How do people come up with this stuff, and how do they find the courage—or maybe it's the stupidity—to write it down and then sing it?)
But "My Girls" sounds inspired by responsibility, whereas "Lust For Life" celebrates the avoidance of it. (This may be why it's a "lust" for life and not "a deep and mindful love" for life.) The whole perspective in Girls' lyrics is lamentable and annoying—it's like people who trace the root of their troubles to the fact that they came out of their mother's vagina at the wrong angle. Next to "Lust for Life," "My Girls" really is a warm sentiment, especially for Animal Collective's younger fans—there just aren't that many optimistic indie songs about fatherhood.
Is all that corny? No. But I don't want to make this sound heavy-handed, either—even in their most dramatic moments, Animal Collective keep their chins up and their concerns manageable. In a way, their solipsism becomes a strength: The perspective in these songs is too narrow to ever allow sweeping statements.
MPP's success was accentuated—to me, at least—by the success of Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers's film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. Both were made by hip, sheepish white guys between 30 and 40 years old. Both were filled with tantrums, trauma, and other behavioral flourishes that most people are encouraged to work their way out of by middle school. But neither was about searching for one's inner child—each was about accepting one's inner adult.
The Wild Things are literally an animal collective: uncompromising and fun until the sun goes down, but petulant and neurotic when you just need them to shut it and do something like sweep the floor or chop onions. By the film's end, not even its protagonist, Max—a pre-pubescent kid in a dirty wolf suit who has run away from home—can deal with their terminal whining, so he gets on his little boat and sails back to the humdrum world of bills and disappointment. He escapes from reality, only to realize reality's not so bad. When he returns, there's a sense not only of acceptance, but affirmation. This doesn't mean he probably won't throw fits from time to time, only that he'll know what's at stake when he does. While watching him, I couldn't help but think of MPP's "In the Flowers": "If I could just leave my body for the night."
When I saw Wild Things for the second time, I took my mom. About 15 minutes in, the family behind us—a mother and her two teenage daughters—started complaining: "God, this movie sucks. It's so boring." (This is really what they said. Out loud.) So they got up and left. My mom barely noticed—her face was fixed on the screen. It's the same divide MPP created, I think—one that made its followers look like dopes and its detractors look like complete cynics. Walking to the car afterward, Mom told me how sincerely the movie affected her. We shared a moment about the important things in life. Then we got in the car, and I turned on Merriweather Post Pavilion. Two minutes in, she turned the volume knob down. "Sorry, I can't," she apologized. "This music just gives me a headache."