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.

  • Jean-Francois Nickel

    thought the article was cool
    as a highly interested animal collective fan some notes:
    “I don’t MEAN to seem like I care about material things”
    my girls = wife and daughter, not daughters
    its actually not a didgeridoo on lion in a coma, according to avey tare

    i have too much time on my hands, thought the article was cool

  • Laird

    its not a didgeridoo, its a jaw harp. It says it on the vinyl liner notes.

  • John

    . 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.

    no.

  • Mike

    John, you’re a dumbass.

  • Won Over

    I didn’t want to listen to this band because quite frankly, their name made them sound like a bunch of fools. I was pleasantly surprised. Thanks.

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  • not me

    this was written good.

  • Mikeal Gordan

    i cans right good two!

  • Mandy

    The first time I heard My Girls on the radio I was teary mess by the end of it. It just really, really moved me…maybe it was the hormones of pregnancy,but also reminded me how lucky I am to have the caring partner I have. I had also been reading a book about domestic violene and what some women suffer.
    Anyway it’s just such a beautiful, beautiful joyous song and still gets me all soppy!

  • Ollie

    This is well written, agreed. However, A Collective’s records if you ask me haven’t gotten better, just different. I prefer their edgier more disonant music. Which is their earlier work, they become more consonant in time. their “weirdest” most accessible music is smack dab in the middle (Sung Tongs, Feels) and more electronic pop is more present. They also recorded alot of their earlier stuff on reel to reel analog tape and more current on computers. you can tell.

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