Review Summary: The decline of indie pop.
Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion
has all the makings of an indie pop masterpiece. It’s an upbeat, intelligent blend of electronica and psychedelia, with just enough quirkiness and irony to meet the passing fancy of the hipster hordes. Backed up by the mystique of having been formed in the 1990s (that is, prior to the indie explosion of the early 2000s) and a discography that charts its failed relationships with a number of independent labels, Animal Collective by 2008 were already established as one of the premier indie groups. This reputation was further enhanced by a sequence of challenging but critically-acclaimed “avant-garde” releases over the course of the decade. Bringing their years of hipster credibility to bear, they thus recorded Merriweather Post Pavilion
, generally acknowledged to be their most accessible and comprehensive work to date, a grand synthesis of all the lines they’d been developing before.
The album itself showcases an impressive range of influences – from African rhythm sections to shimmering swirls of synth – presenting an altogether eclectic and unlikely combination of many different musical traditions. Animal Collective often pursue a dizzying number of mutations in their songs. Tracks like "Bluish" proceed through a series of hazy transitions, one section melting into another. The success of this tactic is uneven; sometimes it works, but other times it just leads to confusion. The instrumentation on the album is also worth noting, if only for its innovation. On “Lion in a Coma,” the group achieves a remarkable instrumental effect, looping what sounds to be a didgeridoo modified to simulate a Jew’s harp. Atmospheric effects recur throughout Merriweather Post Pavilion
, from jungle sounds in the opening seconds of "Taste" to the evening sway of crickets in "Guys' Eyes."
Vocally, Animal Collective conjure up all the old ghosts of late-60s rock, channeling Brian Wilson and the Boys in “My Girls” and “Bluish” and drifting toward Sgt. Pepper’s
-era Beatles with “Also Frightened.” The singing in "Daily Routine" actually at times recalls (don't laugh) Sting in his glory days with the Police. African-style chanting backs the main vocal line in the closing track, "Brothersport"; this is one of the few moments on the record that is immediately recognizable as a failure. The bubblegum swell that builds behind the repetition of the line "Open up your, open up your, open your thoat...
" is singularly obnoxious. The lyrics on Merriweather Post Pavilion
are little more than playful nonsense. Gestures are made toward Kant's theory of taste and the sublime in "Taste," but the deepest thought this song expresses – captured in the refrain "Am I really all the things that are outside of me?
" – amounts to nothing beyond your usual stoner philosophical question. Some clever paraesthetic wordplay on "Summertime Clothes" makes for some charming imagery, but overall the lyrical content on the album is of secondary importance to Animal Collective.
On the face of things, Merriweather Post Pavilion
appears unassuming and ingenuous – a Timothy Leary vision of the twenty-first century. What’s more, it’s a comforting
vision. It does away with all the cold mathematical precision and technicality that characterizes so much electronic music. Animal Collective consciously avoid the haunting, abstract, and industrial strains of electronica represented by artists like Autechre or Aphex Twin. Even the lush compositions of ambient techno, songs by groups like Orbital and the Future Sound of London, seem hopelessly removed from present humanity by comparison. Reviews have consistently praised Merriweather Post Pavilion
on precisely this point. Animal Collective, they say, never lose sight of the “humanistic” base of their songwriting, no matter how drenched in sampling and electronics it may be. In this respect, the band remains true to Frank Gehry design from which the album takes its name, and to Gehry’s architectural corpus in general.
But this should be viewed as a sign of weakness rather than of strength. Instead of blithely celebrating the frivolity and down-to-earth sensibilities of Animal Collective (however drugged out these sensibilities may be), we should recognize the way that the group dilutes the original power and promise of electronic music. There is every reason to be irritated by its triviality and inconsequence. All its “delightful” little meanderings quickly grow tiresome.
Merriweather Post Pavilion
’s eclecticism, moreover, its recourse to elements of world music (which it awkwardly juxtaposes against synths), in fact signals the decline of the popular indie phenomenon that first achieved prominence in the early 2000s. From its first days this recent incarnation of "indie" relied heavily on throwback appeal. But the bands of the new indie circuit, which had from the beginning so self-consciously aped the past greats, were now unconsciously repeating a cyclical movement that had played itself out a little over two decades earlier. They were following that same progression from the Velvet Underground (the Strokes) to post-punk (the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol) and its aftermath in New Wave (the Killers and others) and insipid mid-decade pop. If these parallels have any significance, this cycle would come to its rightful end with the turn to world music, or more broadly eclecticism
(think David Byrne after he left the Talking Heads, the later Peter Gabriel, and Paul Simon with Rhythm of the Saints
). Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion
, along with similarly eclectic records produced by bands like Vampire Weekend or Architecture in Helsinki, would then seem to stand at the end of this motion, pointing to a movement in its death throes.