In a recent interview, Panda Bear described Merriweather Post Pavilion as Animal Collective's own form of soul music. "The music is personal to us; not directly autobiographical, but it's about the things that we think about and care about." Their concerns on this album are clear: relationships, connections, love, existence. However, to call Animal Collective’s lyrical content simplistic undermines the complexity of the feelings with which they’re dealing; and while their muses are well-worn, the confidence with which they relay this overt sentimentality is simply inspiring. In a time when rhapsody is considered mawkish, it's refreshing to hear Avey Tare belt out "And I want to walk around with you" without poetic distancing or Panda Bear singing "What can I do as traffic pass/ Guard my girl from muffler's black gas" without irony. Animal Collective subsume art and life, not because they can, but because they don't make any clear distinctions between the two.
In this context, even the signifiers on their more "challenging" releases (Here Comes the Indian, Campfire Songs) have shifted in meaning for me -- the abstractions now sound transcendent, the formlessness like yearning. It's not that Animal Collective have stopped "experimenting"; it's that their sounds and current lyrical themes have reached equilibrium. While still far from the "rock" aesthetic of the group's first album, Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished, or the spooky existentialism of Campfire Songs, the reach is as generous as it's always been: mutated structures, exaggerated melodies, conspicuously complex rhythms, and warped textures. The only thing predictable about Merriweather Post Pavilion is how much it sounds like Animal Collective.
Influenced by dub and hip-hop, the album adopts deeper bass than before, wrapping each minute in synth washes and electronic bleeps. It exudes fullness -- of ideas, of sounds, of emotions -- that, like the emotions they're dealing with, can be occasionally exhausting, as if restraint had been tossed out the window after Feels. Still, it's quite remarkable that the emphasis on loops, samples, and electronics can convey such primal ecstasy, further dissolving the constructed wall between electronic music and "authenticity" (in this day and age all recorded music is electronic music). When comparing the three-piece lineup on Merriweather to the two-member songs of Sung Tongs and the four-member Feels and Strawberry Jam, it's clear the band is quick to adapt. Animal Collective's sound is dictated by circumstance, not predetermined vision.
While Avey Tare's songs have usually stood out on Animal Collective albums, Panda Bear's tracks are the most indelible this time: "My Girls" and "Brothersport" are already fan favorites, while "Guys Eyes" and "Daily Routine" give the album much needed variety. Panda continues his emphasis on lyrical and structural repetition, singing about being a father and, on "Brothersport," a brother. On this track, he consoles his brother over their father's death: "You've got to open up your throat/ Support your brother." I get chills every time the band harmonizes "Matt!!" Meanwhile, Avey emphasizes more conventional pop, slightly taming his melodic flexibility and reigning in his structural explorations. He's at his best on the more moody tracks, like album opener "In the Flowers" and penultimate track "No More Runnin'," singing "On back porches with the torch of a firefly lit tree/ It's what I hope for."
Change has always been a topic of contention for critics; bands are faulted for both shifting styles and retaining the same one. Animal Collective aren't necessarily growing toward anything in particular; they're just growing, with their aesthetic changing, dynamically and organically, alongside their mindsets. It wasn't that long ago we were calling them ‘noise rock’ and ‘psych folk.’ Yet no matter what mode they're in, the band members amazingly channel the same infectious energy, even when their lives are being shaped by family rather than aesthetics. Indeed, family hasn't become a reason for Animal Collective to stop doing "art"; family is their art. And on Merriweather, their art reminds us that immersion in Western tropes need not be met with scorn, that not all of its idioms have yet been exhausted, that embracing optimism and melody can still be so relevant -- and it aches in the most soulful of ways.
1. In the Flowers
2. My Girls
3. Also Frightened
4. Summertime Clothes
5. Daily Routine
7. Guys Eyes
9. Lion in a Coma
10. No More Runnin