Animal Collective has released nine albums in the past nine years, all challenging, all imperfect but innovative, all substantially different. Some are placid, others orgiastic; some are convincingly reminiscent of dreams and drug trips, others convincingly reminiscent of third-graders; some are gummy and formless, others almost — just almost — straightforward.
The band's peaks are high and its valleys embarrassingly low, but the tradeoff has always struck me as fair: It's exposed the young white world to dub, South American, and African styles; it's futzed around with insular genres like noise and rave without frightening passersby; it's made dance music tolerable to the arms-folded crowd; it's managed to become eminently hip without sounding urbane. It's good-natured and a little weird. In short, it's the open-field festival band for a demographic that would scoff at the notion.
Fans will tell you that 2007's Strawberry Jam is a pop album, a hypothesis I invite you to test by sharing a listen with fellow passengers on a public bus. Context can be illuminating. It's true that Animal Collective's music has accessible elements to it: The group writes strong melodies. The lyrics, when not warped beyond recognition by effects, are concrete and naive. And their giddiness has charm, even if it usually bubbles over into hysteria without table manners — screams, spurts, squeals, cave-ins.
And it's that — that ineluctable intensity, that font of adrenalin — that has always made listening to the band as much a test as a pleasure. Animal Collective songs aren't just hyperactive; they're virulent and aggressive. They aren't just spaced-out; they're inert. They aren't just sweet; they're toxic. The band warps every emotion into its most confusing, acidic form.
Maybe it's drugs, which make routine experiences feel foreign, even scary; maybe it's just its stance that life is most thrilling at its least intelligible. After all, this is a band whose song about touring (2004's "Kids on Holiday") is written from the perspective of a scared child, not a moony journeyman. This is a band that focuses on the murk and trauma of firsts, not the lessons we learn in their wake.
And as irritating as its histrionics can be — very! — it's also what makes its music special. At its most refined — parts of 2005's Feels — the music reminds me of the Coasters the way it sparkles with wordless hoots and silly voices, the way it bounces and reels. The band pantomimes lack of control so convincingly that people still think its shows are improvised, even though they have a synched-up light show. There's something erotic but sexless about it — control being a masculine goal and all. It borrows danger from mystery, not muscle.
Compared to the rest of its protean catalog, this year's Merriweather Post Pavilion — a record so hysterically anticipated by its fans that one actually broke into one of the members' email accounts — is steady and even-keeled. It might not be pop, but it plays like it, with verses and choruses, without too many fits and starts, without too many harsh noises — without, for the first time, screaming. Psychedelia, it turns out, isn't easily compressed into pop-song proportions — that's just the nature of infinity. So, the concessions here are to the tame and slightly corny, the same the Flaming Lips made in the late 1990s.
My love, then, is a little conditional. There are times I miss the band's teeth, the way its songs collapsed into noise, the defiant weirdness — stuff that made band members seem like guys who not only had the spirit but shook from it. But I will say that liking every aspect of an Animal Collective album, while a nice prospect, would make me think it had somehow lost its edge.
And MPP is filled with enough new achievements that it's a waste of space to lament the past. It's a rhythm record with an atmosphere. It uses negative space like dub and canned euphoria like early rave music. It synthesizes all the styles the band has flirted with and strains out just enough of what freaks out the normals. Geologist, always the least evident member of the band on record (he textures the songs with samples and field recordings) and most evident onstage (he wears a miner's headlight) is essential, flooding the mixes with disfigured nature recordings and whatever other gurgles and whooshes he keeps in his small, expensive-looking boxes.
I can't hear any guitars (though there may be a couple, severely processed). Most songs are weaves of glittery synths flowing over booms and thumps that reach hip-hop depths (engineered by Ben Allen, who has credits with Gnarls Barkley and Diddy). And, of course, voices: track after track of gorgeous vocal arrangements as harmonically expansive as they are rhythmically propulsive, as indebted to the Beach Boys as to the repetitive chants of African, South American, and gospel music.
What makes the album compelling, though, aren't its victories but its conflicts — over who the band members are as experimental musicians, over who they are as guys who've known one another since puberty and now teeter on the edge of their 30s, over who they are as people with light mystical inclinations slaving to banalities like tour schedules, press meetings, and photo shoots. Right before "In the Flowers" ruptures into a spray of synthesizer fireworks, Avey Tare sings "If I could just leave my body for a night," and I can't help but think about how much more difficult that must be for him now than when he was a college student with some free time and moist dope.
It'd be pat to say MPP is an album about the band members' growing up, but it is one about endings and beginnings. They sing about starting families and about people they once knew; they fret over whether their capacity for youthful abandon is waning and whether that's just part of life. Panda Bear's lyrics — deliberately plainspoken — are a contrivance, but a comforting one. "I don't mean to seem like I care about material things" or "I know it sucks that Daddy's gone" aren't complicated phrases, but then again, neither are the sentiments. Tare, who used to skulk in the background like a nightmare waiting to happen, now has a searching, introspective presence. If there's any lyric that sums up the album, it's his: "Sometimes I don't agree with my thoughts on being free." That's not psychedelic — it's lightly neurotic.
If youth is wasted on the young, it makes sense that most of Animal Collective's fans are between 18 and 35 — when youth is bruised by responsibility, when innocence requires will (and some ignorance), and when reality becomes, well, a reality. My favorite lines about the band — specifically, Panda Bear's solo track, "Bros" — were written as a parody of Pitchfork on the unfortunately titled blog Hipster Runoff: "I lost my virginity while listening to Panda Bear's Person Pitch in the back of a vintage Volvo after having dropped acid for the first time. I started crying because it was sooo beautiful. The next day I listened 2 it again, and it was so chill." A couple of years down the road, it's just music, and sex is just something you do after work. What used to feel radical is now serene and assimilated. One day, you're just on the public bus, listening to Merriweather Post Pavilion.