Review Summary: what we talk about when we talk about animal collective
The first and only time I saw Animal Collective live was in 2009, and it was so seminal that I, whose memory can hardly be accused of being eidetic, remember the date: December 8. The moment I recall most vividly, which I’ve repurposed as an anecdote many times times since, is that after opening with a rousing version of “In the Flowers”, the band segued into “What Would I Want Sky”. The crowd frothed, cheered, sung along.
The reason this detail stuck was because “What would I want” hadn’t officially been released yet. Fall Be Kind had leaked early, and at this point it wasn’t commercially available -- the audience were so enthused by the band that they’d either youtubed live performances, or downloaded a seedy (lol) torrent of an eagerly-awaited new EP.
What this moment represented was the one and only time in Animal Collective’s career where their own trajectory, carved out of lsd-laced freak-folk experimentation cut with dollops of pop nous, intersected with the line of popular opinion, popular demands.
By way of counterpoint, I remember discussing the gig with an ex, in the bath. She saw them a couple of years before I did, pre Strawberry Jam, and I quote verbatim: “It was the strangest concert I’ve ever been to… they just did these weird noises for an hour and cut them with noise passages. Half the crowd, mostly hippies, went nuts and danced. The rest of us had no idea what to do. I couldn’t dance to it,” before concluding “you would have loved it”, in that tone, half-affection half-mocking, we employ when someone’s interests are unfathomable to us.
Another ex, now in New York, saw them a couple of days after she first landed, last year. “They were amazing!!!” she wrote in an email, “but they were really poppy. It was almost like seeing an indie band. You would have hated it.” Well.
So the discourse surrounding Animal Collective is always framed as a logocentricity, every new album parsed through the past by way of understanding -- how many reviews have you read comparing Centipede Hz unfavourably to Strawberry Jam, Painting With to MPP? Many previous fans bemoan the direction away from their trinity of popular albums, Feels, SJ and MPP; fans who preferred them more “freak” than “folk” yearn for another Spirit They’ve Gone, or Here Comes the Indian.
If I can convince you of anything, it is that this approach is largely fellacious, infelicitous, because Animal Collective’s modus operandi is forward-thinking, or future-thinking. Their albums propel forward to a future where all music sounds like theirs does, sonically at least, which is why their cadre of albums sound so different; the future shifts, of course as the present does, an infinite loop of cause and effect and renewal. This might sound strange for an album who, thematically, seem obsessed with the past, but even though Spirit They’ve Gone is about loss of innocence, how many sonic antecedents to it can you name? Or Feels, about that lost first love; what else sounds like the psychedelic stutter of Daffy Duck, the updated tribalism of Turn into Something?
Which is what makes Avey Tare’s albums difficult, because they alone in all the AnCo related output seem to hark to yore sonically as well as thematically. On the critically misunderstood Down There, Avey Tare didn’t just put his dissolved relationship under the microscope but his previous output as well, nodding here and there to past cornerstones and then sinking them under the weight of his confusion. “You’re so beautiful / you can’t hear me” is an adroit triple-meaning, pertaining to his romantic relationship, his relationship with nature and his relationship with his fans. For this reason, it was a deliberate step-backwards, and even though Animal Collective always thought forwards, so you’d think they’d give him the benefit of the doubt, his mutiny wasn’t countenanced by critics.
At the moment, Animal Collective -- or, rather, their listeners -- are going through a rough patch. People didn’t follow them to the sunshiny glades of Painting With, the frenetic mobius strip of Centipede Hz (although my god: if Deakin was once the whipping boy of Animal Collective, gently scorned, after Sleep Cycle he *** sure isn’t). If they played live now, how many people would sing along to “Kinda Bonkers”. Very few, one hazards, and certainly fewer than when they were the kings of the indie world.
I’m one of the few that is largely happy to follow them, confident that their ever-morphing sound and ideology will co-align with mine eventually even after a couple of misfires -- they’re just that kind of band. But I am glad that Eucalyptus offers us a breather, a chance to slow down and reflect on the past to, hopefully, better prepare for the future.
Again, Avey Tare has constructed an album that, inimical to the AnCo ethos, is heavily mired in his past, sonically. Indeed, one can imagine a bored NPR host introducing the album: “today, we look at animal corrective -- sorry, animal collective, ha ha -- travelling with them from their trippy beginnings to their place as luminaries of indie pop at present.” The tracklisting is judicious, in this sense, as it charters the past chronologically. The opening tracks, garbled and vaguely atonal acoustic numbers, evoke Campfire Songs; Lunch out of order, a chaotic tread into acousmatic territory, could happily have slotted into Here Comes the Indian; later on the album, Boat Race and Roamer recall MPP and Strawberry Jam’s exuberence, with a bit of funk added for good measure (i mean how good is that bassline on Roamer? really). Finally, the album concludes on When You Left Me, a combination of their two latest EP’s squeezed into one song, and the journey concludes at Eucalyptus, a soothing a tonic, Avey settled in his new home of California, here playing the role of archivist happy to condense his history into a 72 minute curriculum vitae.
In that sense, it wouldn’t surprise me if this album was used as a way in, as it were, to Animal Collective (“like Roamer? You gotta try Strawberry Jam man. In Pieces? Sung Tongs is your best bet”), but this is a weakness as well as a strength. Eucalyptus feels more like a compilation than an album sometimes, its sense of cohesion reliant on encyclopedic knowledge of a sprawling back-catalogue. And while there are some immediate tracks, especially jam of a lifetime Jackson 5, a giddy burst of joyous noise, others are more abstruse, reliant on intrusive field recordings and meandering ambient passages that don’t grab or soothe.
We have the critic who cried wolf: Animal Collective have been based on the merits of their previous albums, and not the new albums proper, for so long that when an album appears that doesn’t just suit but demands this critical lens it is likely to be cast off by fans as another dickhead who wants another My Girls or by detractors as someone who relies too heavily on cultural touchstones. Yet I can find no other way of discussing the album, other than as a compendium, a retrospective, an anomaly. That Animal Collective are one of the most important bands of the new century, love them or hate them, is indisputable: Avey Tare has offered us a gentle and for the most part welcoming introduction. Perhaps for that reason alone, Eucalyptus is a record that deserves your attention.
POSTSCRIPT: Oh and did I mention Roamer, Jackson 5 and Ms. Secret? Good tracks those. Very good indeed.