One of the things I admire most about Avey Tare (Dave Portner) is his lack of complacency. At no point in his solo work or as a member of Animal Collective has he adhered to expectation or perceived boundaries, and that wild card nature has often resulted in brilliance (with the occasional misstep). You’re never quite sure where he’ll evolve to next, but can rest assured it will never be boring.
Animal Collective have put themselves in an extremely tough spot. They dared to make a great album, and vastly succeeded in doing so. 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion became the poster child for psychedelic pop music, and it was at or near the top of virtually every year-end “best of” list. As recently as last month, the album claimed the #8 spot on Pitchfork’s People’s List, a poll voted on by close to 28,000 readers. It took the band nine albums and nine years to finally find that sweet spot in their music. Great as success might be, the expectations that bloom from it are anything but easy to handle. Do you try and build upon the things you’ve done before, stay in a holding pattern by trying something similar, or go off the grid altogether and hope for the best? Anyone that’s listened to enough Animal Collective over the years knows they don’t pander to an audience and they don’t sit still. They don’t even know what or where the “grid” is.
In many ways, their courage to always try new and different things is admirable. There’s brilliance in the unknown, and somebody’s got to go looking for it. The problem is you can take a lot of wrong turns along the way. Animal Collective have fared better than most, because even when their songs sound positively nuts, there’s still that slight pop sensibility that keeps them grounded. Jumping through their catalogue, it’s a little tough to find a lot of similarities between Here Comes the Indian (2003), Feels (2005) and Strawberry Jam (2007).Where they are similar is that all of them are very good albums, and all are challenging to a multitude of unique degrees. It’s not hard to understand why the band failed to gain a large audience in the pre-MPP years, even as they jumped record labels from the smaller Fat Cat to the larger Domino in 2007. Taking three years and keeping many music obsessives waiting patiently for a follow-up, Centipede Hz is what they’ve finally handed over. Whatever your expectations are, don’t think for a second that they’ll be met.
One of the main things worth noting about Centipede Hz is that multi-instrumentalist Deakin has rejoined Animal collective after taking an extended break back in 2007. It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much or how little of an impact he’s had on the band over the years, but his absence from the last album may have played some part in its success. That’s not meaning to suggest Deakin is a harmful presence, but rather a catalyst that caused Avey Tare, Panda Bear and Geologist to rethink their approach to songwriting and composition at least a little bit. Sometimes less is more. In the case of the new album, the sentiment turns out to be the exact opposite. Virtually every song is jam-packed with sonic dissonance, and with so much going on it’s tough to know what to focus on at any given time. Some would call it layered and practical, rewarding multiple listens by giving you new elements to explore each run through. While it does become easier to penetrate the more you listen to it, this album forgets the one key that has made Animal Collective such a compelling band over the years – patience. They used to grow their songs slowly, adding more parts and elements until you’re left wondering how you wound up so buried in sound. The cacophony of opening tracks “Moonjock” and “Today’s Supernatural” don’t build to anything. They start with the dam already broken and millions of gallons of water bearing down on you. It’s overwhelming if you haven’t battened down the hatches in anticipation.
Animal Collective also used to have the “freak folk” descriptor attached to their name, a label that was justified for their emphasis on acoustic guitars with a splattering of odd time signatures and polyrhythms. Listen to an old song like “Leaf House” off of Sung Tongs to get a fair grasp of what that sounded like. Their movement away from guitars and towards synths and electronic textures changed things a bit, but it also gave the band a better lower end with some severely heavy bass that cranked up the danceability factor of their music. Take “Peacebone” from Strawberry Jam as an example. By contrast, virtually all of Centipede Hz sounds thin because it ignores that heft and replaces some of the bass and rhythm parts with bells and whistles and other random sounds that all stay in the shallow end. “New Town Burnout” and “Rosie Oh” both skitter by without ever bringing the sort of boom they might otherwise deserve. Even tracks like “Mercury Man” and “Amanita” where you can hear things that are almost definitively bass drums and guitars don’t impact and rattle speakers the way they should. The effect may be intentional though, designed to mimic the effect of listening to the radio on tinny speakers. The mixture of varying radio broadcasts which serve as interstitial moments between tracks and give fluidity to the record seem to support this theory. Is that sort of a move necessary on an album like this? Not really, but who knows what goes through these guys’ heads as they piece together songs.
Maybe one of the main points of Centipede Hz is to push you into liking it, because at their heart these are really simple psych-pop songs dirtied up by a lot of challenging excess. The more you listen to it, the better you can process all of it. That doesn’t make the songs good though. Some of them just sort of wander without much purpose or direction, or take detours down paths that otherwise betray strong melodies. “Wide Eyed” and “Father Time” are both guilty of this, and they sit right at the center of the record. The former is surprisingly straightforward and bouncy, but overstays its welcome and has some so-so vocal work from Deakin. The latter is just utterly forgettable. On an album with so many distinguishing moments for better or worse, it stands as a shrug-worthy effort that even the rather slow and boring “New Town Burnout” doesn’t stoop to minutes later. After pointing out so many apparent flaws, it’s important to note that there are a bunch of very good to great moments on Centipede Hz too. Besides the opening two tracks that have their charms, “Applesauce” has some weirdly great energy going for it, as does the closer “Amanita.” The powerhouse cut of this album though is “Monkey Riches,” a nearly seven minute freak out that comes across like a breath of fresh air. If Animal Collective had done the entire record using that song as an inspirational point, we would have another Merriweather Post Pavilion on our hands, but in a different sort of way that likely would have stood up well amidst their varied catalogue.
You can’t really say that Centipede Hz is a bad record. It’s bad by Animal Collective standards, which are heights that are tough for almost every other artist to reach. If you’re in search of an entry point and a way to ease into the band’s world, this isn’t it by a long shot. But that also raises a great point about these guys: no matter which of their albums you listen to, you’ll never think it’s another band. They may have jumped from acoustic guitars to thumping beats to sound effects and radio snippets in the last dozen years, but they’ve always retained a challenging conceptual sonic structure uniquely their own. There’s comfort in that, even when they release something that might be considered subpar. So they’ve finally hit a creative speedbump, which more than anything else has been a long time coming. Consider this also a way to temper excitement for whatever they’re going to do next. Not that they ever felt any pressure before. At least fans won’t be expecting another miracle. The greatest and best hope you can have is that Animal Collective remain Animal Collective. Everything else is a proverbial roll of the dice.