Review Summary: Painting With...a Much Reduced Palette
Animal Collective are everyone's idea of how they'd form the perfect band, a group of school friends uniting and blurring the lines between play and artistic expression, one day realising that what they're creating is special enough to share and eventually make their life's work. The AnCo discography runs together like a coming of age story split between distinct stages of experimentation and self discovery. Sure there was always the faint whiff of privilege hanging in the air, their music painting pictures of a bunch of carefree dudes taking shrooms and running around in the woods naked, giggling together like the world was their very own tropical playground; what always won you over was the sense of genuine wonder their music projected. Like a trip their songs were vivid, surreal, sometimes joyously extroverted, other times dark and painfully introverted.
Of course youthful exuberance fades, but to the band's great credit they made the trials of adulthood and parenting sound like just another set of adventures on latter day albums like 'Strawberry Jam' and the mainstream breakthrough 'Merriweather Post Pavilion'. Unbelievably, maturity appeared to suit them. It was only upon the subsequent release of 2012's 'Centipede Hz' that a note of caution was raised; the album was directionless, lacking in energy and for the first time AnCo had released material that sounded like it was a bit of a drag to write and record. For a band such as this that was an unforgivable crime and it wasn't a surprise when the album met with a distinctly muted reception.
'Painting With', perhaps unsurprisingly, comes across as an exercise in redressing the weaknesses of its predecessor and reconnecting with the band's inner child. Indeed it's hard to imagine a title that screams 'look, we're creative, we're inclusive, we're still children at heart' more than the one that adorns this release. Unfortunately, despite these honest intentions, the album can only be judged as truly successful in one regard; it's certainly a more unified listen compared to 'Centipede Hz'. What's dispiriting is that this potential strength is pushed too far the other way until it ends up as the project's greatest weakness; runs of songs have blurred together on previous albums but never to the extent that they do here. As a result far too many of these songs become melodically indistinguishable from each other and fall flat.
If 'Strawberry Jam' captured the band at their most technicolor, as reflected by the album's gaudy sleeve, then the predominantly beige tones of 'Painting With's cover speak volumes. Someone's stolen half of the boys' crayons. We're left wondering just what happened to the band who ran the hypnotic spoken word creep-fest '#1' into the children's cartoon theme song 'Winter Wonder Land' before collapsing into the nightmarish nostalgia of 'Cuckoo Cuckoo'. Such diversity is nowhere to be found here, the same nuts and bolts of fussy layered vocals and squelchy processed beats are utilised throughout, resulting in the first AnCo album where the unique songwriting personalities of Avey Tare and Panda Bear have gone largely AWOL.
This is not to say all the writing falls short; 'Floridada' is an effective opener and lead single which sports trademark propulsive chant-along verses; 'The Burglars' is an insistent Avey Tare number that shows he has an extra gear above his solo work that he can still switch to when required; 'Lying in the Grass' appears to be an experiment in throwing together instruments from every corner of the globe in the one composition but somehow pulls it off; and 'Golden Gal' is a single-in-waiting that still packs significant replay punch. The remaining material is never so poor or incongruous as to upset the overall flow of the album but, and here's the rub, you may find yourself wishing there were a few lumps and bumps to shake things up a little.
It's hard to know where this album leaves Animal Collective; it's now two mildly disappointing albums in a row, both displaying the unmistakable hallmarks of identity crisis, yet surely it's far too early to imagine this band relaxing into becoming a 'Greatest Hits' touring enterprise. You feel they'll have to arrest this decline sooner rather than later otherwise their long term survival prospects look shaky, especially when you consider that both lead songwriters have established critically respected solo careers. Although it's true to say that as of yet this output has failed to scale the heights of AnCo at their very best, this solo material nevertheless always sounds natural and unforced. The sad truth is that, in marked contrast, 'Painting With' comes across as a mature album dressed up in childlike garb...and it's fooling no one.