Animal Collective
Photo: Hisham Akira Bharoocha / Motormouth Media

Animal Collective Do What They Do on ‘Isn’t It Now?’

Animal Collective’s Isn’t It Now? suggests both urgency and passivity, displaying some of their best attributes but also their self-circumscribed limits.

Isn't It Now?
Animal Collective
29 September 2023

Animal Collective, the landmark experimental electronica act, is approaching the quarter-century mark as a project. Founded in Baltimore in 1999, its rotating members – Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Avey Tare (David Portner), Geologist (Brian Weitz), and Deakin (Josh Dibb) – have released 12 studio albums over this period, including their new LP, Isn’t It Now? This longevity and the critical acclaim that has followed are remarkable. However, it has also translated into a method and style that has become ossified in different ways. Isn’t It Now? features these strengths and weaknesses.  

With nine tracks lasting 64 minutes, Isn’t It Now? is notable for being Animal Collective’s longest album. It is the product of a month-long recording session outside of Nashville in 2019, a fertile period that also resulted in 2022’s Time Skiffs LP. The two records can be approached as a compositional suite. Whether Isn’t It Now? is a secondary selection of outtakes is open to interpretation. However, with Russell Elevado on board as their producer, whose collaborations include work with Jay-Z and the Roots, this perception of leftovers doesn’t seem to apply.

Still, this album is an inconsistent affair. Isn’t It Now? wanders a lot, which is a good quality insofar that the bad ideas aren’t dwelled upon for too long. It is unusually pear-shaped with its longest composition, “Defeat”, arriving midway as track five and lasting 21:59 minutes. It is more than twice as long as “Magicians from Baltimore”, which takes second place at roughly nine and a half minutes. Other tracks – “All the Clubs Are Broken”, “Broke Zodiac”, and “Gem & I” – are between two and four minutes. The result is an uneven listening experience, with some ideas dispensed with quickly while others are dwelled on at length as if Animal Collective can’t complete a thought.

The first track, “Soul Capturer”, has a trippy, psychedelic vibe that pleasantly recalls the Flaming Lips. It’s the strongest track with its sanguine mood and layered folk instrumentation. It goes on longer than it should, but Animal Collective aren’t necessarily known for their brevity. The second song, “Genie’s Open”, has a slow-building sound, similarly instrumental in scope, that recalls the Beatles circa Revolver (1966). Interestingly, it takes a turn after five minutes into an extended coda that has a Stereolab-like rhythm and melody.

The middle three songs settle into familiar terrain. The track “Broke Zodiac” has a nostalgic Beach Boys chorus. As one of the longer tracks, “Magicians from Baltimore” takes its time, reaching a soulful midway point that approaches gospel music in its call-and-response structure between the vocals and piano accompaniment. In contrast, “Defeat” is a drawn-out affair of breathy, melodramatic vocals over an ambient synth melodic line that never quite builds the emotional depth it aspires to. It feels interminable by the end as if Animal Collective can’t find a way out.      

That said, “Defeat” forms something of a pivot, with the remainder of the album improving in spots. “Gem &I” has a familiar polyrhythmic Beach Boys vibe. “Stride Right” is carried by lovely individual vocals backed by a piano melody. On the other hand, “All the Clubs Are Broken” has intertwined group vocals that impart the unpleasant impression of a hipster barbershop quartet. The LP’s closer, “King’s Walk”, similarly returns to their signature harmonies, though it sounds like a warmup session for a men’s choir, not a band bringing things to a conclusion. 

This last point gets to something I’ve wanted to write for some time now. Animal Collective have been praised as pop revivalists, using sonic collages and harmonic vocals to revisit and update sounds from the 1960s and 1970s. The Beach Boys and their Pet Sounds (1966) are a key reference point. At their best, on past songs like “My Girls” from Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009), Animal Collective can reach something like a glittering state of heightened pop euphoria. On other occasions, however, when you strip away the collages and instrumental layers, they can sound like a highly accomplished, though vacuous, university-level a cappella group. Close your eyes and try imagining it.

Approached differently, the literary critic James Wood once described the fiction of Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace as displaying “hysterical realism” – an overblown style that sought to capture and comment on everything in the world but retaining the paradoxical effect of saying very little that was authentic by trying to say too much. Their fiction became a concept of fiction rather than a representation of anything approximating actual life.  

There is a similar muchness to Animal Collective. Through collage, layering, imitation, and other techniques, their music has, at times, represented a concept of music rather than music played by ordinary people. This is a fine line that can be applied to other artists. To cite another reference, the sampling work of J Dilla constantly questioned and explored the line between conventional music and the concept of music – what exactly is music? – which is to say that such interrogations are fine and important when self-consciously pursued.

Such questions appear below the surface for Animal Collective. Though recurrently free-spirited and positive to a fault, Panda Bear et al. nonetheless willingly venture into pop cliché. Indeed, the charm of Animal Collective for many is their essentially feel-good harmlessness. Like their esteemed Beach Boys, there is no edge. 

The album title Isn’t It Now? suggests both urgency and passivity – a Zen question for pausing and acting in the moment. After years of praise (and overpraise), Animal Collective may be at a career juncture. Isn’t It Now? summarizes some of their best attributes. It also shines a harsh light on their self-circumscribed limits. 

RATING 6 / 10