Animal Collective have come a long way from their first four albums’ formless ambient drone and arrhythmic tunes. The Baltimore, Maryland band’s music has gradually become more accessible throughout their career. They gained recognition with the soothing meditations of Sung Tongs and Feels in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Then they released Strawberry Jam in 2007, full of synth-heavy pop and folksy melodies. Since then, their music has evolved into increasingly approachable song structures with catchy choruses while remaining uniquely imaginative. And they would only get more likable from there.
Time Skiffs – the band’s first full-length album in six years and fifth to be released through Domino – doesn’t carry the eccentric style of indie-pop that Animal Collective fans are used to hearing. Instead, this is Animal Collective’s least experimental album, encompassing the sound of a straightforward indie rock band who are more than happy to play an afternoon set at your local town square.
The casual indie band style doesn’t make Time Skiffs bad. It only makes this collection of songs seem less distinctive than their most recent albums of the last decade. If you’re looking for the same wildly experimental, delirious pop music that came from albums like 2012’s Centipede Hz and 2016’s Painting With, look elsewhere. Time Skiffs is tame and grounded. It’s an album for looking out the window, taking it easy, and allowing yourself a moment to reflect on how life has unfolded recently.
Much of the rock band sound comes from Noah Lennox’s relaxed live drumming. This isn’t the first time Lennox, aka Panda Bear, has used acoustic drum kits in the band, as every album since 2005 has incorporated acoustic drums. Still, it was always sparse, adding a subtle tension to the music. The backbeat has taken many forms in the past, sometimes trotting, thumping, or frantically calculating.
However, the drumming on Time Skiffs gives their music a classic full rock band flavor. “Dragon Slayer” exemplifies the album’s general sound with its strong bass and full drums, as well as twinkling synths. “Strung with Everything” has a big blues festival sound, complete with gang vocals and instrumental cutouts brought back by conventional drum fills. There are no arrhythmic patterns on Time Skiffs. The energy is pretty even and standard, but this chill vibe is where Animal Collective want to be.
That said, Animal Collective are far from sounding tired. Instead, they’ve shifted their style once again. The most notable change in their music is the inclusion of basslines. David Portner, aka Avey Tare, delivers playful, buzzing basslines on “Prester John”, “Walker”, and “We Go Back”, an unprecedented sonic component for the band.
They also explore other modes of songwriting outside of indie-pop and freak folk. Jazzy shuffling drums and bouncing bass stand out in “Cherokee”, and the repetitive progression of the last half is mesmerizing. As a vocalist, Avey Tare has always been playful and impassioned. He makes Time Skiffs shine with his soulful melodies, particularly on the dreamily psychedelic “Passer-by” and “Royal & Desire”, a slow jam to close the album.
Lyrically, Time Skiffs isn’t deeply philosophical or socio-political. Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s words aren’t necessarily timeless and aphoristic. They’re more like slice-of-life notes from a journal. You can imagine Avey Tare sitting on a bench contemplating what he sees and jotting down his thoughts. These songs are like travel diaries full of passing observations and attempts to make sense of them within a grander picture. The album carries a somber tone. Loneliness and a longing for something distant, perhaps warmth and affection, permeate these songs. Time Skiffs is a thorough personal reflection on where Animal Collective stand emotionally as a band that know all too well the life of perpetual travel and the experience of passing by.