February 2016; Domino
Not many artists make ten albums, especially in the indie scene, which for all its self-awareness is definitely the least inviting. Anyone who achieves any success or notoriety is battered with cynicism, sneers grow as sales do, and affection for anything can be drenched in up to six levels of irony at any given time. Yet lead member of Animal Collective ‘Panda Bear’ accounts for 13 releases with a rating higher than 8.5 on Pitchfork, the only journalistic body with more indie-credibility than Exeposé Music. Animal Collective’s well-meaning, experimental psychedelia has struck a very rare chord.
When ‘FloriDada’, the first track from the album, was released, I was amazed. AnCo have transitioned through a lot of different sounds but here was one that was so new and yet so characteristic. Not only that, the production was more complicated and precise than ever, like an immaculate blueprint for fun. The cherished ambience was traded in favour of elaborate playfulness, a slight worry, but I paid no mind as I eagerly rowed through the Animal Collective-sponsored Disneyworld boat ride. The lyrics whirl through Sweden and Osaka to Ghana and Tijuana, with this Dada-esque collage of geography matched only by the impressive patchwork of vocal delivery. And this is all structured legibly and coherently, with spacious, echoing harmonies making the energy breathable. I realised not to take this for granted after hearing the rest of the album.
It makes your body wobble not with distorted mirrors but with tasty tunes, and all the clowns are paid well enough not to have to fake their smiles
The energy and fun remains, but post-‘FloriDada’, tracks become more like showcases of intricate production. To use another amusement park metaphor (which is definitely appropriate), the album is like entering a funhouse, energetic and interesting. It makes your body wobble not with distorted mirrors but with tasty tunes, and all the clowns are paid well enough not to have to fake their smiles. However, as you get further it turns into a colourful crack den full of crudely painted surly single dads who rely on the same spinning bowtie trick over and over again. This bow tie trick is each part of a line sung in quick succession by alternating singers. This is interesting, but then Avey Tare and Panda Bear begin trading not just words but syllables and when the instrumentation also becomes heavy and dissonant this becomes a struggle. This would be fine and not too different from earlier AnCo experimentation; I certainly didn’t expect to embrace everything on the first listen, but this album is different in its unrelenting energy and disregard for the craft of sonic progression that made Merriweather Post Pavilion so incredible.
AnCo seems to struggle with what they want to do and this translates to erraticism
The use of sampled radio and television is fun, as on ‘Hocus Pocus’: ‘if you’re out and about on the freeway this morning there’s no dinosaurs to worry about’, but is only used on 4 of the tracks. AnCo seems to struggle with what they want to do and this translates to erraticism, ironically the song that explicitly mentions Dada is the one that feels least cobbled together. Tracks like ‘Golden Gal’ and ‘Recycling’, where the band actually pace themselves and widen the sound, are fantastic, but often a tight and desperate feeling pervades. ‘Lying in the Grass’s incremental syllabic scale gimmick is cool and impressive but also feels like listening to a panic attack.
I wonder whether they’re just getting old. It is strange to be called ‘Panda Bear’ when you’re nearly 40; it broke my heart when he stopped wearing his trademark panda hat. Despite the experimentalism and the energy, this album is definitely less bold than we’re used to with AnCo. It forsakes real immersion and funky wonder for rollicking production and is thematically all over the place. Yes there is a ‘dinosaur vibe’ as intended, but what about the geographical focus, and how did they expect the squelching swampland sounds to possibly fit with the whirring mechanical-ness of it all. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a fun and interesting album, but makes more sense listened to as individual songs. And some of those individual songs make more sense as showcases of production and gimmicks rather than something coherent and otherworldly as something you’d find on their best albums. It’s not stunning, but to losing stars for trying to be too fun and daring is not the worst reason.