Before now, Animal Collective was a band married to their routine. Their habitual practice of auditioning and subsequently tweaking new material live in front of adoring audiences gave them the freedom to build and refine their music from nothing, as well as the privilege of having a direct line of communication to an engaged fanbase during the compositional stages of making their records. It partially explains how a band with such a distinct and enduring legacy has managed to maintain it through their gradual, nearly 20-year evolution of making wildly unique and deeply beloved albums.
On Painting With, for one reason or another, Animal Collective have abandoned that method for a more traditional approach. Instead of piecing together the extracts of live improvisation into a somehow cohesive whole, Panda Bear, Avey Tare, and Geologist (longtime band member Deakin sits out this record) came together specifically to craft an album the old-fashioned way: self-contained songs, standard formatting, no major experimental disruptions. In many ways, Painting With is what Animal Collective sounds like when they stick to the script.
The first impression one gets about the album is that Animal Collective feel bound to a constricting method of songwriting that simply doesn’t suit their incredibly elastic style. The band’s newly dedicated emphasis on a durable, straightforward songwriting architecture interferes with their essential ability to capture hazy melodies in unexpected forms and jostle listeners between conflicting rhythmic patterns. Instead, they simulate it, mostly through a constant barrage of call-and-response vocal harmonies and swirling sound effects not new to the Animal Collective playbook, but perhaps quite a bit overused here without anything else to establish the psychedelic backdrop fundamental to their sound. Sonically, most of the album struggles to find that balance between straightforward, pop-minded musicality and the band’s established, admittedly messy heritage.
At first it seems too simple. “FloriDada” has the brightly bewildered warbling of Animal Collectives best singles carpeted over typically summery instrumentation, a galloping beat, and somewhat dopey lyrics, cementing it as a quintessential demonstration of the band’s essence. “FloriDada” looks back at the chintzy melodics of Strawberry Jam through Merriweather Post Pavilion’s sunny poignancy and Centipede Hz’s slightly confused take on pop customs for, strangely, one of the band’s most conventional songs since the mainstream-piercing “My Girls”.
Still, something of crucial importance feels left out of the process. There are no crescendos to climactic exuberance, no patient ruminations on a musical theme, no tension building — only the relatively flat verse-chorus-bridge cycle. It’s all startlingly simple.
As it turns out, the rest of Painting With isn’t far removed from the structural standards set by “FloriDada”. To make up for the loss of their improvisational baggage, Animal Collective doubles down on the buoyant melodies and infectious rhythms of their most accessible work. The sprightly “The Burglars” combines fluidly catchy vocals reminiscent of Strawberry Jam or Feels with complex electronics spiritually sourced from more recent work, and “Bagels in Kiev” sparks with the warm approachability of Merriweather Post Pavilion. “Lying in the Grass” seems to spring from Panda Bear’s luminous solo material, and “Golden Gal”, inexplicable Golden Girls sample aside, calls back to the spunky percussive energy of the band’s first records. Much of Painting With is a joyous reimagining of Animal Collective’s past selves.
At the same time, the shadow of that legacy hangs over this new record in a way in never has before. 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion is still understandably regarded as Animal Collective’s high watermark culturally and artistically, and it’s certainly the most pop-oriented of their previous records, making it a clear inspiration for the band with this latest material. But what can’t the band get right on Painting With that they so artfully drew from seven years ago?
Frankly, Animal Collective seem to have lost their sense of purpose. Even the highly divisive Centipede Hz had a discernible thematic direction and clear points of inspiration. With its narrow, confined style and shiftless attention, Painting With is now the greatest contradiction in Animal Collective’s discography. Its music is both cramped and aimless, too familiar and yet incapable of reaching old pinnacles. By absorbing themselves in the process like never before, Animal Collective have fallen back on old tricks — a handicap they never used to afford themselves.
Painting With is unmistakably an Animal Collective album, but in its eager familiarity, it ultimately neglects the one all-important quality of any Animal Collective record: novelty.