Animal Collective’s co-leader, Dave Portner, steps into the solo spotlight with a song cycle dealing with death, illness and depression. Surprisingly, it’s often a warm, comforting album.
Whenever a band has two singer/songwriters, fans are naturally inclined to designate one as the “Lennon” of the group and the other as the “McCartney". Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) has already made a strong impression with his solo work, but where he sits exactly on the Lennon/McCartney spectrum has been hard to ascertain as Avey Tare (Dave Portner) has never released a solo work for comparison. Additionally, their respective contributions to Animal Collective have never marked either as definitively “Lennon” or “McCartney". Down There, Avey Tare’s solo debut, allows us to settle this arbitrary score once and for all. It turns out they are both Lennons: fearless in their sonic explorations, but steadfastly beholden to melody.
Portner and Lennox are also alike in how they have begun their solo careers: coping with family tragedies. Panda Bear’s solo debut, Young Prayer, was a eulogy for his father. Avey Tare’s Down There was shaped by the death of his grandmother, his sister’s battle with cancer and a protracted separation from his wife. In the press, Portner has also emphasized how much swamps and crocodiles informed Down There‘s murky, sloshy sound-world. Despite being informed by dark times and locales, the record is, more often than not, a surprisingly warm and comforting affair.
Very little of Down There’s sonic palette is without precedent in Animal Collective’s catalogue. Much of it can be traced back to Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished’s ominous, celestial balladry, Feels’ swoony, freeform jams and Water Curses’ aqueous rhythms. Occasionally, outside references are apparent as well. The shimmering bell tones that comprise “3 Umbrellas” (an ode to his three bandmates) feel like a conscious nod to Pantha du Prince’s bell-happy Black Noise. This comparison is all the more relevant considering Panda Bear provided guest vocals on Black Noise’s “Stick to My Side”, a song that plays remarkably well as a companion piece to “3 Umbrellas”.
Although lyrical abstractions and vocal manipulations are Animal Collective trademarks, Portner’s lyrics have grown increasingly less obtuse over the years. Down There continues this progression and rarely leaves any room for ambiguity -- the somber centerpieces “Cemeteries” and “Heather in the Hospital” being the most obvious examples. The latter heartbreakingly details his sister Heather’s battle with cancer: “It brings me down to see you lying wrapped up in your messy gown... We’ll get you on your feet, I’ll hug you dear and give you all I can.” Musically and thematically, Down There is a remarkably cohesive album, but it is does falter briefly in consistency. The back-to-back placing of the instrumental “Glass Bottom Boat” and the turbid dub of “Ghost of Books” creates a bit of a drag in the middle of the album, but the aforementioned “Cemeteries” quickly gets things back on track.
Portner has never been one to sign off on a down note, and Down There is no exception. The buoyant closer, “Lucky 1”, pops right out of the muck with the album’s most uplifting sentiment: “Fly off from harder days / Today I feel like the lucky one.” This pose of defiant optimism is a reoccurring theme in Portner’s work and remains one of his most compelling attributes as a songwriter. After an album full of well-earned wound-licking, it is reassuring to hear him, once again, rebounding with a lust for life.