It’s an interesting exercise trying to capture Animal Collective in writing because you can never capture them down. This difficulty has lead to a cottage industry of labels for this stealthy band, all built around the idea of “genre bending/genre hopping.” Some think they can sneak up on each new record, but they slip away every time. Reviews of their output by cool media outlets often say “genre bending” when they write about Animal Collective as a band, or when discussing the individual artists (David Portner, Noah Lennox, Josh Dibb, and Brian Weitz), which sounds really cool: Here come the genre benders, again! But what does that really mean today? I’m serious. What does it mean? As an explanation for Animal Collective’s mission, it just doesn’t work because more music is being created every hour without thought of genre. Categorizing labels like this are for filing cabinets. (Do people still use filing cabinets?) In iTunes, it’s a property setting, and you can create as many labels as you like. Go nuts. Animal Collective laughs at labels, and they make we wonder why we need labels to begin with. I remember the arrival of Animal Collective’s “Strawberry Jam” (2007), which I thought was amazing and which still gets regular play in my rotation. It’s not what I would personally call “genre bending,” because I don’t call anything genre bending. True, there’s a lot going on, but overall there’s still strong musicianship, artistic exploration, and musical/lyrical integrity emerging. What if we stop trying to label Animal Collective? Will they disappear?
Indie music today sometimes seems to be a battle of machines versus human beings who still want to hold and play instruments. Music is all about feeling, mood, and meaning, so I personally don’t care what genre an artist chooses to use. Some artists are explorers. Years ago, I read someplace that one of the biggest challenges of being an explorer is reconciling landscapes as they really are with landscapes as people imagine them to be. Even more confusing, add in landscapes that people hope they’ll encounter, because human beings need things to be predictable. It’s easier to slap a label on predictable.
Animal Collective intentionally removes the predictable just to see what we’ll do. We must be endlessly amusing to them. I don’t care where you want to start measuring the band’s output: the really early stuff, or “Sung Tongs” (2004), “Hollinndagain” (live experimentation from 2002, reissued in 2006), “Strawberry Jam” (2007), “Merriweather Post Pavilion” (2009), or their latest record, “Centipede Hz,” this is a band perpetually in motion, testing us, teasing us, playing with us, questing, sailing on in search of something new they can collect and use in each new record. They’re explorers who never come home! If you line up all their records and play them one after another, it’s like opening specimen boxes of things collected along a purposeful journey. Everything is connected. It’s all exotic, with one surprise after another. World music, sort of. This isn’t a story of machines versus humans. There’s no tension like that here. It’s more a story of creative artists in search of the exotic that they can collect and attach to the composition of the moment.
I did a test, more to test me than to test Animal Collective. I loaded up all their records in Spotify and played them end to end. I did this because there’s generally a bit of a gap between each release, sometimes years, so when each new record arrives it seems like a blast of energy from a new solar system. But when played one after another, EPs and LPs, their music feels remarkably like one thing, interrelated and very much connected. Connected to the tools they use to make each record, connected to their imagistic lyrics, connected to their restless imaginations. Their earliest vision of their sound comes into sharper focus as their skills and the tools advance, year after year, like they have their eyes fixed on a horizon that they’re sailing toward, record after record, grabbing the latest tools to get them closer to what they see. If we can’t see it, that’s our problem, not theirs. When I play their records one at a time, or just a couple back to back, I don’t always see this interconnectedness, but it’s still there. Played all together, in order, everything feels connected and progressive and visionary.
Their newest release, “Centipede Hz,” is accessible and interesting and right in line with this band’s explorations. I’ve played it through several times, and every time I play it there’s a Nineteen Eighty-Four cultural warning vibe that floats in and out of view. Starting with the first track, “Moonjock,” civilization seems to have slipped off track. Nothing feels quite right in the landscape. Covered wagons and hotel signs float in the landscape. Someone is fiddling with the car radio, which sounds like distant coded messages, but we can’t quite work them out. We’re on the run, sort of, or not. In “Rosie Oh,” we’re on foot. The melody is cheery but the message is one of drift, leaving something behind, wandering. It’s the times. What’s left behind is never fully understood. Modern culture is in decline, slipping, but it’s all we have, so we go with it. You can almost see mysterious (or comical) billboards advertising Johnny Walker or Tylenol, shimmering in the heat beside the dusty road. My favorite track is “Monkey Riches.” I love the lines “Lately I want to be in my heart/But where exactly is my heart and where does it start?” Animal Collective’s lyric style is always engaging and rich. Their music is dazzling and attracts the majority of attention, but their lyrics are always fresh and challenging and poetic. This song got inside my head early. Play this track loud!
The limited edition deluxe two-LP packing perfectly compliments the music. The artwork works throughout as a complete metaphor. It reminds me of when oil sits on water in the gutter beside a road, shimmering with all the detritus of culture floating in it. Ugly and beautiful in all it’s colors and separations. The deluxe LP has a DVD with high-res versions of the 11 songs. When played, the artwork changes on screen with each track. It’s like dumping out the boxes of treasures this band has found along the road while in motion, scooping up anything shiny, suggesting poetry, product logos, foil gum wrappers, and billboard advertising. If there’s any ugliness, it’s our fault because… it’s where we live. The band gave us “Centipede Hz,” their latest, but they’re not here, they’ve already wandered on. They’re out there, somewhere, sailing on, searching and scattering cool artifacts as they go. They don’t care if we figure them out, or if we label them, or if we ever get what they’re doing, or if we never catch up. In the time it took me to write this review, they’ve moved on. They’re miles away by now.