Review Summary: Giddy-up.
Animal Collective is not in the best place right now. With several releases by the band now garnering no more than a lukewarm reception, it seems as if this decade more than anything has brought the cracks hidden underneath a bit closer to the surface. While not an outright fall from grace, it’s safe to say that there is a disconnect between the artists and the appreciators. As the collective. But as individuals, the members of AnCo seem to be stretching their wings a bit with each passing year. Some with moderate success (Deakin’s 2016 debut Sleep Cycle), others not so fortunate (Panda Bear’s more recent output).
Which brings us to Avey Tare (Dave Portner), and where he falls into the fold. I suppose my outlook on his discography is a bit different than most, as I thoroughly enjoyed his last album, Eucalyptus. There was a lot to love about that album in my eyes, but something just did not sit with the listening public. Perhaps there was still lingering doubt. After all, that album was coming only a year off the polarizing Painting With, an album considered one of the Collective’s weakest releases to date. Another ill-received album followed soon after with 2018’s ambient Tangerine Reef. It seemed as if AnCo had fallen out of public favor for good. But what of its members?
When Cows On Hourglass Pond released, I was ready for a bombshell. Less than two years later, Avey released another solo record out into the wild. This time, it seemed different. There was a confidence to the release, almost as if he wanted it to be heard as soon as it was finished. That excitement is contagious, and only meant one thing in my eyes: a knockout. My feelings were validated by the number of singles that preceded its release: The upbeat “Saturdays (Again)”, the downtempo electronica of “Taken Boy”, the comfortable strum of “HORS_”. What all of these have in common is a simplicity, one that has been severely lacking in the Collective as of late. It’s why I was so drawn to Eucalyptus on release, as that album saw a return of a more centered sound. Yes, there is some audio trickery involved with both this and Eucalyptus, but not to the point of distraction like it has been for so many years now.
Tracks like “Nostalgia in Lemonade” and “Our Little Chapter” revel in this electronica wonderland for long periods. However, they only serve as a backing and not as the star. So many times, specifically since their breakout album back in 2009, AnCo seemed to feel comfortable letting the instruments play themselves and taking a backseat in their own music. Cows sees Avey finding that balance again, finding a comfortable middle-ground for is vox, as well as his impressive songwriting chops, to share the spotlight with the haze of instruments. “Remember Mayan” is a beautifully-formed psych pop gem, captivating in every sense and only enhanced by the dreamy electronic backing. Even when the (comparably) short instrumental track “Chilly Blue” whirrs and chirps, it is properly juxtaposed by an atmosphere of soothing calm and the strum of a guitar.
Despite what it’s almost-mechanical exterior may say, Cows On Hourglass Pond is an album full of hopeful emotion and longing. When Portner warbles out lines like “We're getting old now” on the opening track “What’s the Goodside?”, this could be misconstrued as a sign of impending doom. But, it serves as an uplifting reminder to let go of those stressors:
“Do you wanna embrace it, but the aging heart's been born of this”
“It'll take some getting used to, but the aging heart stood warm, in bliss“
When the album closes with “HORS_”, there is a bittersweet tone that pervades. Inspired by how language seems to change depending on the passage of time, looping back to the ideas from the intro track, this song wonders what a word as simple as ‘horse’ will mean down the line. It’s original meaning has been skewed so many times, only time will tell how we view certain words. In the same vein, how will we view Animal Collective and Avey Tare as time progresses? Will there be a fondness to those familiar names, will it be longing, or will it be disgust and confusion? Only time will tell, but much like the cowboys of old, there’s little worth standing still for. I’ll stay for the ride.