Animal Collective have always been a group of talented artists. They are aware of how sounds work and how to string them together in interesting, if sometimes off-putting, ways. But, somewhere around the recording of Sung Tongs they decided it wasn’t enough to be a group of artists, they wanted to be a band. And thus began the move away from the more-safari-than-surfin’, Wilson-spotted soundscapes, and toward more defined songs. And it would seem that their true ability to experiment took off from there. It seems much easier to experiment when you throw all the rules out the window, which seemed to be the case on the tribal Here Comes the Indian, and while the early stuff was relatively successful in its expansive noise, it seems much harder for a band like Animal Collective to succeed within a structure, to work within the tenets of pop music to make their noise in their own corner of the room.
But songs like “Who Could Win a Rabbit?” from Sung Tongs showed them doing exactly that. And then, after Prospect Hummer, the misfired collaboration with Vashti Banyan, the group pushed their craft even further, releasing Feels, an album that managed to match the brilliant atmosphere of Tongs while making an album that was far stronger song for song. Earlier this year, Panda Bear released Person Pitch, and even with songs that capped the 12-minute mark, it was the most accessible A.C.-related release yet, full of the signature choir-vocals and noise-play the band cut its teeth on, but with a refined pop sensibility that gave the noise a stronger foundation.
Now Animal Collective is back with Strawberry Jam, an album that they hoped would capture the frenetic energy and immediacy of their live performances. In their pursuit for yet another new sound, they’ve managed to blow all their previous records out of the water. Strawberry Jam is simultaneously true to the band’s left-field sound and their most accessible — and yes, even catchy — record to date. Lead single “Peacebone” is a perfect example of what works on Strawberry Jam. The electronics at the song’s start imply a continuation of their old sound, one that ambles and builds slowly, until the drums come in with just a distant thud, followed by vocals that are not only intelligible (a trait absent from many other A.C. releases), but also establish a brilliantly hummable melody. Sounds rise and fall as the song pushes on, but the drums are undeterred and the blips keep the holes filled in until the bridge comes on with a full-tilt, screamed freak-out which shows that, for all the pop-yness of the new material, the band is no tamer than they used to be.
“Unsolved Mysteries”, with its staccato acoustic guitar, sounds more like the old stuff, but when Panda sings, “She stopped crying like a child,” it becomes immediately apparent that there’s more emotion than impression in Strawberry Jam. You could always pull emotion out of Animal Collective, but where before it was a more visceral reaction to sound, it is now more of a give and take between listener and artist. The same is true of the buoyant “Chores” where the band jumps right into perhaps their quickest song ever and you can feel them trying to power through some quotidian minutia and then the song hits a wall and slows way down. It’s another patented Animal Collective move, but instead of using the slow down to let the song unravel, they push on and sing over and over “when there’s no one watching” and the song becomes a great blues moment.
Strawberry Jam could legitimately be labeled Animal Collective’s punk rock album, and not only because of its raucous noise. This is punk rock in the same way Suicide (a band that A.C. channels on the haunting “#1”), Television, and the Talking Heads were. The best punk rock, from its heyday, made you believe that, in music, anything was possible. That Animal Collective can turn their own established sound on its ear in a song like “Fireworks”, where the vocal delivery sounds like gospel laid over music straight out of ‘80s electro-pop, and somehow in between the two is the band’s brilliant use of circus percussion and other-worldly harmonies. This shows not only the band’s range but also that they’ve thrown assumptions about their art out of the window, and the listener should follow suit.
There’s always been a “How’d they do that?” quality to Animal Collective, but now quality is built in to songs that are downright catchy. The choice of “Peacebone” as a lead single seems more arbitrary on this album than the Feels single “Grass”, because most of the songs on Strawberry Jam could be pop singles, at least as much as an Animal Collective song can be a pop single. The album succeeds more than any of its predecessors because it always entertains and surprises. If anything, Strawberry Jam is a testament to the benefit of a band taking the longview. Animal Collective are always trying new things, but with new songs ever working their way into live sets, and other albums and side projects that aren’t as successful as they are adventurous, you can see that they’re not obsessed with nailing it every time out. They’ve been making solid records for a while now, but there was always the sense that they were building towards something with each one. And if it turned out that Strawberry Jam was the album they were building toward all this time, then the band would be a brilliant success. But it seems almost impossible they’d stop now, and if they keep pushing forward the way they have, there’s more great music just on the outskirts of town, hidden under a copse of trees, waiting for us to stop what we’re doing and listen.