Counterbalance No. 128: Animal Collective's 'Merriweather Post Pavilion'

Venture my way into the dark where we can sweat. One takes the 128th most acclaimed album by the hand. Animal Collective’s indie rock sensation is the focus of this week’s Counterbalance.

Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavilion

US Release: 2009-01-06
UK Release: 2009-01-06
Label: Domino

Klinger: Well, Mendelsohn, last week you asked me if the canon was still open, what with the inclusion of slightly more recent records like Radiohead's In Rainbows on the Acclaimed Music aggregate of the greatest albums of all time. Now this week we have Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion, an actual, honest to God album that was released not just during this century, but right at the dawn of the Obama administration. Still, I have to give you the same answer I gave you last week: The inclusion of a handful of current records doesn't indicate to me that we're still continuing to write the history of the album as an art form. Whatever the relative merits of Merriweather Post Pavilion, I still think its placement on the Great List is more of a mathematical aberration than anything else.

I suspect Merriweather Post Pavilion is located here at No. 128 based on its high rankings on various best of the year and best of the decade lists. Once the dust settles and our resident mathemagician gets around to crunching the numbers again (which he hasn't done for quite some time), Animal Collective's standing will dip significantly. Even so, I think it's fair to discuss this album as a snapshot of a certain genre (indie rock) at a certain time (the late '00s). That's a time when I was a little checked out, though. Perhaps you, Mendelsohn—with your finger on the pulse and whatnot—can shed some light here?

Mendelsohn: Probably not. In late 2008 and early 2009 I was in the depths of a new music addiction that had me downloading six or ten new albums every week, listening to each one briefly before moving on to the next set of albums. Searching — always searching for something. When Merriweather Post Pavilion came out in January of 2009, I downloaded it, gave it a once-through, and never thought twice about. It didn't hook me and didn't immediately have what I was searching for. Months later when everyone started calling it the album of the year I thought they were off their rockers. I even tried going back and listening to it again to no avail. At that point I realized I had grown old and began to question my addiction. What was I searching for?

Luckily, it was around that time that you and I started this crazy little journey called Counterbalance, forcing me away from feverishly searching through new music and pushing me headlong into the canon.

It wasn't until a year or two later that I finally came to realize what it was that I was looking for as I binged on all of that new music. I was searching for the next great album, the next entry into the canon — that great shared experience that can only come from music as it breaks down barriers to connect everyone with a simple melody, a righteous groove. Of course, that sort of idealism is dead, gone as the music makers systematically killed off or found new ways around the gatekeepers. We will never have another Led Zeppelin IV or Pet Sounds or Rumours or even an OK Computer. All we will have now is a Merriweather Post Pavilion — a scattered psychedelic and electronic mess from a band most people don't even know about. But to that end, I would say that the canon is still open, although what was once a heavily-guarded golden citadel has become a rundown, underfunded, and unloved museum, stuffed into the back of some commercial space in the seedy part of town. Anyone can get in there, Klinger. Anyone. Even three dudes who sound like they are beating their poor synthesizers with baseball bats.

Klinger: Well, I wouldn't go that far, although someone may want to point out that their keyboards have other buttons besides "Sparkly". Still underneath all that space dust veneer, there is still a solid pop sensibility behind a lot of these tunes. "My Girls" and "Summertime Clothes" jumped out at me right away, and even with the off-kilter rhythms in places these tracks are pretty accessible. So much so that Animal Collective earned a lot of comparisons to the Beach Boys (although I wouldn't necessarily present this album to someone who catches Mike Love on one of his nostalgia shows—this is definitely more Loony Brian era Beach Boys than "Fun, Fun, Fun").

Really, Merriweather Post Pavilion reminds us that all throughout the Great List so far, we've mostly encountered albums that have sought to find some new way of presenting this thing that we call pop music. I can't think of too many examples of albums that weren't, deep in their core, a solid collection of songs that are designed to engage the listener. Animal Collective uses swirling sounds way up top to create a sense of ethereal disconnect, but as I listen I keep getting pulled back in by the hooks.

Mendelsohn: I know. I'm just being a little hyperbolic. There is no question that the Animal Collective can write hooks with the best of them. And I'm OK with the Beach Boys comparison. Both the Brian Wilson and the Animal Collective seem to share an affinity for sweet, sweet pop music that is a little weird or a little sad or both. But is that all we need? A couple of hooks, a bunch of crazy samples, and a decent beat?

I've come to find the beauty in Merriweather Post Pavilion, especially in "My Girls" (an arresting development in the pop genre if there ever was one) but while I see flashes of brilliance in songs like "Lion in a Coma" and "Summertime Clothes", nothing on this album is the type of thing that is going to outlast the band. So the ability to write great pop hooks aside, maybe 2009 — and by extension the whole decade — was a weak year for music. But then, those albums that were picked as number one for their respective year have to go on the list somewhere, right?

Klinger: Correct—and who are we to argue with mathematics? Even if my predictions come true, it still serves as a pretty apt depiction of a certain time and place. But if I am revealed to be the Nostradamus of my age and Animal Collective slides down in future editions of the Great List, I think it will have something to with a certain samey wash of sound that's all over this record.

The more time I've spent listening to Merriweather Post Pavilion, the more I found myself wanting to hear some low end come along and kick me in the butt, or some guitar to come slashing through the mix. I recognize that that's not necessarily fair—we probably shouldn't criticize a band for not making the record we wanted them to make—but I couldn't stop myself regardless. Maybe there's a longer dissertation in there about the ephemeral nature of this music vis a vis the transient state of pop music in general, and if we ever decide to leave the Counterbalance biodome maybe I'll write it.

Still and all though, I can't help thinking that this divide between mass appeal and critical acclaim will be the ultimate reason why the canon is basically closed. It wasn't that long ago, for example, that Arcade Fire's The Suburbs debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart and won the Album of the Year Grammy and still managed to spark a meme in which no one knew who they were. While mainstream America dwells in a Kardashianized monoculture, the people who genuinely care about music have become as relevant as ham radio enthusiasts. What chance does an Animal Collective even have compared to the advantages that the Beach Boys or even Jimi Hendrix enjoyed?

Mendelsohn: The answer is Animal Collective has no chance but that being said, I don't necessarily think the canon is completely closed. Let me try some reverse engineering before we leave these guys on the side of the road. Where does the canon end and what are the criteria for inclusion? Does the canon end in 1998 with Radiohead's OK Computer? In 2003 with the White Stripes' Elephant? In 2005 with Arcade Fire's Funeral? Does the album have to win over a certain number of critics and sell a certain number of units before it can enter the canon? Am I asking the impossible? Maybe I am. Maybe the canon just sort of fades out by the hand of some lazy engineer or songwriter who can't come up with a good ending.

As to your implied assertion that an entry to the canon constitutes both critical and commercial acclaim I would like to quickly point to Television, Love, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and Kraftwerk as examples of bands who are in the Top 100, presumably canonical yet not exactly well-known, or well-loved, outside the nerd circle of music criticism.

Klinger: OK, fair enough, and maybe I overplayed my hand in terms of commercial impact. But most of the groups you mentioned are repeatedly trotted out by artists as being major influences, which is one of the most important criteria for canonization. Will groups 20 years from now be talking about Animal Collective?

Mendelsohn: The only thing we can do now is wait and watch. Time will tell us whether the canon is indeed closed or an ever-evolving picture of critically acclaimed music. The next update to the Great List will provide us with some answers; specifically where the Arcade Fire's The Suburbs will land and maybe more importantly the direction Animal Collective will take as albums begin to shift up and down the list.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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