Originality is the modern pop critic’s white whale. Someone out there has condemned just about every good album of the last decade as “derivative.” But on occasion, some artist will manage to make innovative, idiosyncratic, original music that isn’t aggressively “difficult,” and the result is the wave of adulation that Animal Collective has been riding since the release of their ninth album, “Merriweather Post Pavilion.”
I shouldn’t overstate AC’s originality. They didn’t burst fully formed from the head of Zeus. Their sound owes a lot to the Beach Boys’ weirder pop-symphonies, to worldbeat, to noise, to European dance music, to the lunatic fringe of ’60s psychedelia and to Musique concrËte. Back in the day, Animal Collective’s records consisted of little but a collection of their stylistic tics and hallucinogen-fueled weirdness. Their genealogy makes Animal Collective’s music sound like it’s a clattering mess, conceptually appealing but unlistenable. “Merriweather Post Pavilion” is nothing of the sort. Every song, from the meandering opener, “In the Flowers,” to the anthemically dancey finale, “Brothersport,” is brilliant, charming pop. All those years of yelping through delay pedals in abandoned movie theaters have paid off, as songwriters Avey Tare and Panda Bear (Dave Portner and Noah Lennox, according to their tax returns) worked out their own peculiar musical vocabulary.
Animal Collective’s ever-developing sound is hard to pin down, but they’ve always relied on group chants, animistic screaming, droning instruments, insistent but constantly shifting rhythms, and ambushes of bizarre (but appropriate) noise. The gang has progressed from using acoustic guitars, tape loops, and primitive drums, on their breakout record, 2004’s “Sung Tongs” to samplers, sequencers, synths, and drum machines, without ever abandoning their signature style.
The stylistic developments from 2007’s “Strawberry Jam” to “Merrriweather” are subtle; they’re mostly a matter of diversity and ambition. The electronics sounds less synthetic and more varied than before. Many tracks (“In the Flowers,” “Also Frightened”) are made out of fairly melodic chords and beats, while others, like best-of-the-album “Summertime Clothes”†or “Guys Eyes” combine a-melodic, noise-inflected beats with unhesitatingly sweet group singing to make remarkably pretty music. While AC have always had a “tribal” aesthetic, “Merriweather Post Pavilion” is probably the first place they have consistently used distinct elements from non-Western music, as with the prominent didgeridoo on “Lion in a Coma” or the West African-inspired melodies of “Brothersport” and “My Girls.” These new additions sound completely natural, fitting perfectly into a paradoxically innovative pastiche.
As Animal Collective polish their sound, their lyrics are finally becoming intelligible, and Portner and Lennox are revealing a few things about themselves. They demonstrate that they can be awkward lyricists (try to find all the problems in the following line: “I don’t want to seem like I care about material things, like a social status”). But more importantly, they reveal that they aren’t the sorts of hippie bohemians you might expect. On the lead single, “My Girls,” Lennox sings about wanting to work hard to provide for his daughters. Most of the songs are ecstatic celebrations of simple pleasure, like walking around with a loved one on a warm summer night on “Summertime Clothes,” or the titular sense on “Taste.” These aren’t tortured artistes or fey hipsters. They’re nice, relatable dudes.
It’s remarkable that AC have coherently developed their noise experiments into such elegant, accessible pop music. And given that every one of their records has been better than the last, they’re probably the most exciting band in the world right now. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine a band this eccentric getting much more popular. But if you played me one of their early experimental albums like “Danse Matinee” for the first time today, I would never believe that the same guys would create “Merriweather Post Pavilion” and debut at 13 on the Billboard album charts. Lots of novel things are happening this month, so in the spirit of our New Era of Hope and Change, let’s hope that Animal Collective can be pop stars.