It’s sometimes hard to tell whether Rafter Roberts is being entirely serious. He’s released a string of catchy if schizophrenic albums (most recently 2008’s Sweaty Magic) that appear to crack open the definitions of pop, dance, electro, and funk, then hit purée: whatever comes out is not so much a statement as a wild-eyed, frantic indication of the discovery of a new land. These previous efforts sometimes came up just a little bit short, and ended up crashing in the bushes of experimental noise despite their moments of grin-inducing pleasure.
Perhaps, then, the choice to open Animal Feelings, his latest on Asthmatic Kitty, with a track titled “No Fucking Around” is appropriately deliberate. Introduced in a swirl of talkbox and backwards piano twinkling that’s just cheesy enough to be hilarious, the lead-off track matches pop-and-lock drum snaps with Rafter’s surprisingly smooth vocals before snaking its way back to that gulping, distorted, and unabashedly dirty talkbox groove for the chorus. Rafter’s M.O. on this album couldn’t be more obvious: As he writes on the cheekily titled “Timeless Form, Formless Time”, “I’ve never heard this before / ‘Cept for the part where I say / Get your ass out on the floor”. The resulting effort has produced what is probably Rafter’s most focused and consistently fun album to date. Despite a few instances in which it forgets that mantra toward its conclusion, the majority of Animal Feelings is a highly enjoyable slice of pop/funk grooviness.
The best songs on Animal Feelings stick religiously to “Timeless Form, Formless Time”’s simple message of pure enjoyment. On “A Frame”, Rafter gets away with all manner of absurdist lyrical quirks that necessitate the asking of that whole “being entirely serious” question (“They will try to knock us down / Rub our faces in the ground / We will hold each other up / You’ll see, you’ll see” sounds like something out of a kids’ TV show) by laying them overtop a stomping, cracking drumbeat as rock solid as the song’s titular piece of construction. Lively horns, clattering cowbell assaults, and a catchy synth riff all jump on the pile, but the song’s relentlessly danceable backbone keeps it all from crashing down on its architect.
The strutting horns, cowbell, and bass stomp return for “Timeless Form”, but here Rafter decides to tell a coherent and charming story about love across a crowded room. It actually makes sense: like the experience being described, the song is catchy and hot and fun, and Rafter is content to admit that he’s “gonna sing about it now” instead of making it into a mad-science project. “Fruit” makes an about-face back toward the absurd, leaning heavily on its guitar hook and turning the talkbox back on, but it keeps the fun dialed in with hand-claps and cute lyrics that are too bizarre to be cloying. “Feels Good” is a much more laid back lovemakers’ jam, driven by a throbbing rubber-band bass line and a healthy dose of Jell-O-jiggling envelope filter that once again bridges the gap between corny funk parody and backbone-loosening glee. The only problem with it is that it doesn’t really go anywhere, with the exception of a little piano breakdown right near the end. Rather, it’s content to grab onto a single super-catchy hook and sink it deep for four minutes.
When Rafter takes these infectious little dance-pop earworms and fleshes them out, either with intelligible stories or more musical depth — as on the title track, or the exuberant, sarcastic “Paper”, with its chorus that asks “you motherfuckers, you motherfuckers, where did you go?” — his songs inevitably get riskier. Greater reward, as on the latter track, is balanced with greater potential to trip up, as he does on the immediate follow-up, “Never Gonna Die”. It abandons the simple, hooky get-up-and-dance focus declared so boldly at the start of the album, swallowing all the schoolhouse strangeness of Rafter’s lyrical bent in the repetitive, shoegazy grandiosity of its refrain. “Only You” is the stubby tail end of that experimental drift. Fortunately only a short interlude, it twinkles and twitters and arpeggiates, but is ultimately of no substance at all. Rafter seems to swing back to his more experimental older self from “Never Gonna Die” right through to the end of Animal Feelings: this section of the album is still grounded in its persistently groovy bass-and-clap formula, but is never quite as compelling for those last eight to ten minutes as the album proved it could be over the course of its excellent first half.