“Will it just be like they’re dreaming?”
It’s definitely a funny time of year to be reviewing what could likely be the best album of 2009, especially one with such sunshine-drenched atmospherics, but Animal Collective may just have rescued us from the seasonally adjusted black hole that is January. Subject to pre-release hype not seen since, well, TV on the Radio’s ‘Dear Science’ last autumn (two good examples of how the US music scene dominates currently), ‘Merriweather Post Pavillion’ delivers in spades. It is the album I have always wanted Animal Collective to make, having – as William Rycroft pointed out in this excellent review – sustained the peak of their potential over the course of an entire record. Their ninth to date, this is by far the prolific group’s most emotionally rewarding effort, the perfect synthesis of their LCD-addled sonic adventure and song-craft.
To label this as an effort to compromise with broader listening tastes is patently ridiculous given how dense and volatile Merriweather sounds, but to quote William, “the clarity comes from the strength of the actual tunes and more than ever the genuine warmth of the lyrics”. Whereas the Maryland Collective’s full-lengths have always included at least one or two songs so singularly mind-blowing to warrant the price of a full-CD (for example, ‘Did you see the Words?’ from ‘Feels’, ‘#1′ from Strawberry Jam), Merriweather is a definitive modern psychedelic record – their ‘Deserter’s Songs’ or ‘Soft Bulletin’, but even further leftfield than either of those great albums.
Opener ‘In The Flowers’ is the hybrid of digitally-enhanced psych pop that Mercury Rev were trying to deliver on their recent, disappointing ‘Snowflake Midnight‘. Imbued, like much of the record, with a mulchy, aquatic dissonance, it features a sudden, exhilarating storm of electronic energy and thumping 4/4 rhythms. Sonically intense but bursting with feeling, it pulses with an almost overwhelming sense of yearning. The palpitating rushes, so suspiciously loved-up (with it’s mantra of “to hold you in time”), are more ecstasy than acid, if I can be so reductive. The mood of heightened elation is sustained into ‘My Girls’, which develops the thrilling combination of Beach Boy harmonics and loops that member Panda Bear (aka Noah Lennox) adopted on ‘Person Pitch’, but with a larger sonic palette, including deep, sonorous club-land basslines that I have never heard used so effectively off the dancefloor. Busy to the point of bursting, it is a credit to the strength of Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare) and Lennox’s melodies that they radiate through the dense layers of samples, synths and other sonic trickery.
‘Also Frightened’ is, wisely, a breather from the Technicolor assault of the opening two tracks, and is one of a trio (with ‘Bluish’, and ‘No More Runnin”) of enchanted, hypnotic ‘ballads’ – for lack of a better word – that are more focused than anything comparable they have done before. The nursery-rhyme simplicity of the chorus (“Will it just be like they’re dreaming?”) is hauntingly infectious, bubbling out of a shimmering, otherworldly landscape. ‘Summertime Clothes’, by contrast, melds malfunctioning glam rock stomp, grinding drones and gibbering found sound in a song that is dizzyingly festive, almost Christmassy, and Carnivalesque. Only they can possibly make music like this, with its joyous chorus “And I want to walk around with you?” instilling the maddening brew of sound with emotional abandon.
Beginning with discordant Fisher Price organ doodling, dubby baslines and industrial strength percussion, ‘Daily Routine’ gradually blends into a blissful, damaged finale. Meanwhile ‘Bluish’ may be the most beautiful thing they’ve ever recorded, it’s West Coast harmonies bubbling up out of a cauldron of aquatic effects from the Octopus’ Garden itself. “Put on the dress that I like, It makes me so crazy, though I can’t say why”, goes the gorgeous falsetto chorus, in a track simultaneously lilting and paradisal, ethereal and wholly impressionistic. ‘Guys Eyes’ – a proverbial Noah’s Arc bursting with animal life – recalls the jungly (as in the rainforest, not drum and bass) material from ‘Sung Tongs’. Over the tribal rhythms the intertwining harmonies seem spontaneous and playful but are dazzlingly intricate. “Am I really all the things that are outside of me?” goes the chant in the joyous, celebratory ‘Taste’, while feverish sirens and cavernous breakbeats imagine a hip hop Brian Wilson. The tumbling, feral vocals, pounding didgeridoos and trance-like textures of ‘Lion in A Coma’, vaguely resemble tracks from Gang Gang Dance’s ‘Saint Dymphna‘, while the African harmonies of the epic climax, Brother Sport, are irresistibly, outrageously positivist.
Animal Collective clearly are operating in an orbit of their own, completely unshackled by conventions. They wield completely disparate musical textures and create impressionistic pop songs out of them. The music is both densely complex and infused with pop sensibility; less wilfully anarchic than previous records. They have retained their childlike wonder at the possibilities of music – retaining their hallmark kaleidoscopic sugar-rush – but the emotional yearning is resonant, insinuating itself in the mind and drawing you back. Wild and cohesive, sonically intense but heartfelt, Merriweather Post Pavillion is Animal Collective’s crowning achievement so far and probably one of the best of the decade.