Why do Animal Collective always end up being the band that critics seem to be raving about?
Did you think this was going to pan Merriweather Post Pavilion? Sorry, can't oblige -- I'm as guilty as the most effusive critic of Animal Collective-love. So here goes. Merriweather Post Pavilion is a masterstroke, a release so fun to listen to it makes you actually hopeful for the new year, not just for music but for life in general. It's musically sophisticated, of course, boiling up the band's characteristic components of techno, tribalism, drone and noise with gorgeous melody into an addictive optimism.
In the past, it has taken a bit of effort to relate to Animal Collective's music. I used to pretty much hate Animal Collective. They seemed somehow to embody this Brooklyn-centric elitism that proffered vague ideas about "music" as an excuse for screeching into the microphone or recording eight minutes of directionless ambience. If my reaction was knee-jerk against a critical community that occasionally seemed to revel in its own cooler-than-thou attitude, casually bequeathing Best Music on unapproachable bands, it was an overly impulsive one. It's not just that the band's come more towards the mainstream over the past three or four years. If you go back and listen to their older material through the prism of Sung Tongs-and-on, you're struck by the open-heartedness of their sonic creations. Over time, the ragged open ends have tightened, but the optimism and wonder remain the same.
This open-hearted delight is what, once won over, keeps us coming back and back. Put on an Animal Collective album and somehow things seem all right. Merriweather Post Pavillion says this through warm tones and less prominent noise/drone elements -- through the machinery of pop. Poppier, for this band, doesn't mean worse. Strawberry Jam might have been the best pop album of 2007; witness the off-kilter train-shuffle of "For Reverend Green" and its synth washes of "#1". And this continues without break throughout Merriweather Post Pavilion; instead of vague electronic atmospherics, down-time is marked by chiming, recognizable guitar arpeggios. You'll be surprised by the alt-rock melodic figure in the chorus of "In the Flowers" -- and love its juxtaposition with the two-chord stasis of the verse. You may have already heard the buzz about "My Girls" and "Brothersport" – the former, particularly, will go down as an Animal Collective classic -- sanguine, innocent, and enthralling.
But then again, "Taste" is as patient as "Swimming Pool", and "Lion in a Coma", perhaps Tare's best song on this album, shares something of "Chores" and "Who Could Win a Rabbit"'s unhinged celebration (instead of the yelp, though, we get ironic auto-tune and a climax of controlled, sublime falsetto). Since Strawberry Jam and through the Water Curses EP, Animal Collective have developed a mature band's confident deployment of engineered components. This is, after all, their ninth album together since 2000.
Moreover, Avey Tare and Panda Bear have never sounded more in sync. The two principal singer-songwriters' vocals have been (minimally) treated in similar ways, retaining the vocalists' essential character but smoothing them into an ear-pleasing blend. No more of Tare's characteristic shriek, which is a shame, though I doubt we've heard the last of it. And it's all so charming that whatever Tare/Bear are singing about hardly matters. There's a lot of paeans to children, walking around (as we've previously luxuriated in on "Street Flash"), and celebration of intimate moments: a lover's voice cooling our singer on a boiling hot night, watching her sleeping form "with delight", and playfully admitting he's charmed when she "claws him like a cat".
So Merriweather Post Pavilion finds Animal Collective tight and sharp, and it suits them. Animal Collective's music is for everyone's world. I've had it on repeat while riding the shinkansen between Tokyo and Kyoto, Kyoto and Hiroshima, Kyoto and Tokyo. While walking around unfamiliar streets. But it's music not just for this specific situation but for driving. For, yeah, doing household chores. For pretending to work on a slow day. For when you need some music to make you smile. For life in its infinite variety and endless delight.