I’ve always enjoyed Animal Collective’s musical idiosyncrasies – the ecstatic whoops and squeals, the ghostly, far-off vocals that sound as if they’re sung in another room or in an echo chamber, the layers upon layers of synthetic sound studded with absurd and seemingly random samples, the rhythms seemingly thrown in as an afterthought and carrying the music along so precariously that it sounds like it could all fall apart at any moment, or that the thrust of psychedelia will escape its corporeal constraints and blast off into space. The Collective keeps me and the rest of their fans interested because they continually turn conventional song structure completely on its head while still managing to create music that’s intriguing, dynamic, and full of chaotic character.
So when I started reading reviews about the band’s ninth studio effort, Merriweather Post Pavilion, that included words like "catchy" and "accessible" in the same sentence as "best album of the year," I was concerned. Had the band really changed their aesthetic so much?
The short answer is no. All the captivating elements of chaos are present, but reined in a bit, with more moments of ambient exploration and dreaminess, and a longer build to the wildly explosive climaxes. Take the opening track, "In the Flowers," a love song veiled in drug references that opens with bare, watery sonics, an acoustic guitar sample, and Avey Tare’s beseeching, echoing vocals. As he wistfully sing-sighs, "If I could just leave my body for the night," the music takes off with pounding drumbeats, high-pitched backing synths and pulses of fuzzy bass, only to draw within itself and end on a soft note.
The bouncy hit single, "My Girls," has Panda Bear and Tare waxing on the simple needs of a family man with call-and-response style vocals set against funky skating rink beats and ascending and descending synth notes. Likewise, "Daily Routine" also reflects on domestic life ("Make sure my kid's got a jacket / Keys and coat and shoes and hat / Strap a stroller to my back / Bouncing along every crack"), but does it with trills of organ notes, deep throbs of bass, and a barely held-together rhythm.
The 11-track album closes with "Brothersport," which, in classic Collective fashion, uses repetition to great effect, lyrics and versus circling around on themselves and chanted over and over again, the music moving in a similarly circular rhythm and full of sounds – a blaring alarm beat, distant calls, high-pitched electro notes. A holy chorus of voices signals part two of the song, where Tare and Bear recite, "Until you’re fully grown / You got a real good shot / Won't help to hold inside / Keep it real keep it real shout out" over and over again, the repetitive singing keeping the rhythm as much as the drum machine.
On the whole, Merriweather Post Pavilion is Animal Collective’s most cohesive to date, the songs less like individual spasms of creativity and more like puzzle pieces that fit together seamlessly, the result a psychedelic album for the technology age.