Animal Collective Strawberry Jam

[Domino; 2007]

Rating: 3.5/5

The men in Animal Collective have ingested a diverse array of records; this much is clear from the wide range of textures and songwriting techniques you can hear in the band’s back catalogue and the members’ various satellite projects. But judging from Strawberry Jam, these fellas haven’t read much pop criticism, or even watched an episode of Behind the Music. Because if they’d done either, they’d know that rock bands are supposed to develop, follow a linear trajectory. They’re supposed to sell out. They’re supposed to narrow their focus and churn out albums for specialized audiences. They’re supposed to harness their creative instincts and chart out new territory. They’re supposed to craft masterworks. They’re supposed to plateau. And after nearly a decade of playing and recording together, these four guys have done none of the above.

Instead, Animal Collective have produced a series of tenuous, transitional albums. With each release, the band wriggles into a different pair of Levi’s -- and when the record’s over, Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist, and Deakin still haven’t broken in their new pants. In Campfire Songs, Avey and Panda soak spare, bloodshot acoustic guitar in gauzy effects, but they soon run out of ideas. During Here Comes the Indian, all four members fuse spastic post-hardcore clatter and wave-like psychedelic massages, but they bring us to a state of ecstasy only after subjecting us to lengthy bouts of throat-clearing. Feels, the group’s previous album, filters Brian Wilson through 4AD reverb, but the studio varnish leaves tones clumpy and tasteless. Strawberry Jam? It’s part Syd Barrett, part early Modest Mouse, a marriage of ’60s psych-pop and ’90s quasi-emo indie that results in some touching songs and some deplorable digressions. Like other Animal Collective albums, it’s a half-finished project that bears only a passing resemblance to its predecessors.

And yet, for all their shifts in style, the Collective are running in place. Like Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, these guys refuse to grow up. Buried within each of their albums is adolescent anxiety. By making a series of tentative steps towards a new aesthetic, the band explores these emotions from different perspectives rather than following them into different stages.

In this album, Animal Collective’s teenage angst is perhaps more palpable than ever before. On a handful of songs, Avey Tare screams awkwardly, his vocal chords cracking like Guy Picciotto’s circa Rites of Spring. These strained yelps resound uncomfortably through “For Reverend Green” and “Fireworks,” but they effectively convey the music’s unresolved tension, its knotty stomach and sweaty palms. In the latter song, the mounting stress is especially devastating: drums tumble along slowly but insistently, melancholic “ooo”s rise but never peak, and the chorus never allows for release -- a placid piano line sidles into the frame, and that’s it. Even our moment of clarity tugs at us, never reaches a satisfying conclusion. When Avey screams, he’s wrestling against the music and his own thoughts (which, in this song, are fixated on trying and failing to “get that taste off my tongue”), attempting in vain to finish somewhere other than the place at which he began.

For the most part, the rest of Strawberry Jam is as affecting as “Fireworks.” Why? Because in most songs, the band insists not only that real struggles, not trifling matters, are being dramatized, but that our inability to fully communicate our thoughts and emotions doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. “It’s not the words that you should follow/ It’s your inside,” Avey exhorts in “Peacebone.” Language might fail us, but we needn’t toss truth out the window because of this. These songs deal in real presences, grasping for logos.

The music tries to express what words can’t, which makes this Animal Collective’s most combustive, “live” record yet. Even samples and studio effects betray a human presence, a manipulating hand: in “Peacebone,” cartoonish splats groove like drum hits and bleating electronics stab like staccato guitar. Songs fail when a sense of removal hangs over them, as in “#1,” a limp mélange of archetypal prog tricks, and “Winter Wonder Land,” which features a sterile pre-chorus whose rhythm borders on hyperbeat pop-punk.

These troughs are particularly grating, and they demonstrate, more clearly than any of Animal Collective’s past falterings, that these men are not visionaries. Rock-prophets don’t take such low-return risks. The desire to communicate simple emotions and experiences drives Animal Collective; they are, at the end of the day, folk musicians.

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