Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino, 2009)
It should be good to share our favorite things
I’ll keep an open mind if you let me in
Don’t let your temper rise, don’t get a bitter face
Try not to judge me on my kind of taste
And don’t go changing clothes when they don’t like yours
This invitation and counsel comes from the closing verse of the song “Taste,” a squelching Beach Boys-meets-Main Street Electrical Light Parade stomp from Animal Collective’s latest opus, Merriweather Post Pavilion. If ever there was one album worth leaving your musical comfort zone for, an album worth spending some time getting acquainted with, allowing it to grow and reveal its many delights and rewards to you (even, and maybe especially, if you didn’t like it at first), this is the one.
Throughout their career as a band, Animal Collective has tapped into the joyful, scary sounds of childhood sonic exploration. By this I refer to the fun, meandering, genius songs that some four-year-olds make up on the spot, or the wild sounds you might hear an untrained five year old who has free reign at a piano pound out. In other words, these are the musical activities children feel free to do before they learn to do them the proper way, before they become self-conscious and embarrassed about such behavior, or before the keyboard cover is slammed down and they are dragged out of grandma’s living room to timeout. The members of Animal Collective either never moved past this stage or they found some magical way to revert to it. They are “playing” music, and as play it is imaginative, primal, experimental, fun, obnoxious, and, perhaps above all, mysterious.
I emphasize the mystery of their music because It is often nearly impossible to figure out what instruments, sounds, or playing methods you are hearing at any particular moment in an Animal Collective song. In past efforts their lyrics were sometimes difficult to correctly decipher and included words placed together as much or more for their sound as for their meaning. Again, this mystery and abstraction points back to that childlike propensity to “play,” their ignorance of many of the conventions of musicianship or their belligerent refusal to adhere to them. Over the course of their career they have developed their own idiosyncratic methods of creating music using their instruments, their computers and their voices, and this has made for several albums worthy of the listening ear of an open-minded music fan. However, with the songs on Merriweather they have clearly become masters of their self-made musical methods; this is their most accomplished and accessible album to date, in both songwriting and arrangement. Each song is fully formed, inhabiting its own lush and unique world.
Their instrumental mystery/mastery is in full play from the outset of the album with the song “In the Flowers.” Various abstract noises soon resolve themselves into a waltz rhythm featuring a triplet figure played on an instrument that, with each morphing note, sounds like it could be something different: Is it a harp? a harpsichord? a guitar? a treated piano? a synthesizer? After the second verse the song explodes into a beautiful cacophony of abstract sounds that give the effect of a full-on symphony orchestra: strings, brass, woodwinds, the whole package. I say “give the effect” because this “orchestration” is likewise of indeterminate instrumental origins. This wonderful noise blasts out over a thick electro-timpani beat and orchestral percussion. It simultaneously evokes a Tchaikovsky ballet movement and contemporary electronic dance music. Such musical references to dance make the lyrics and music entirely symbiotic, as the singer imagines dancing with the one he loves, from whom he is currently far removed.
Unabashed playfulness and lyrical mastery also abound in “Summertime Clothes,” which is at once a hugely weird summer jam, a perfectly written pop song, and a sort of “Good Vibrations” or “Singin’ in the Rain” for 2009. Sizzling, gurgling soda pop sounds and ambient street noise accompany euphoric singing that describes a hot summer nighttime walk through city streets:
It doesn’t really matter, I’ll go where you feel
Hunt for the breeze, get a midnight meal
I point in the windows, you point out the parks
Rip off your sleeves and I’ll ditch my socks
We’ll dance to the songs from the cars as they pass
Weave through the cardboard, smell that trash
Walking around in our summertime clothes,
Nowhere to go while our bodies glow
And we’ll greet the dawn in its morning blues
With purple yawn, you’ll be sleeping soon
And I want to walk around with you
And I want to walk around with you
To me, one of the most winning aspects of <em>Merriweather</em> is the fact that so much sonic playfulness and weirdness is coupled with lyrics firmly grounded in domestic life. These are not songs about random sex, drugs, violence, and rock n’ roll excess, nor are they political rants, trite love songs, or absurd fantasies, but rather songs about wanting to provide a decent home for your family (“My Girls”), songs about missing your spouse when traveling (“In the Flowers,” “Guys Eyes,”), songs about waking up early and getting your child ready for the day (‘Daily Routine”), and songs giving advice to a little brother (“Brother Sport”). In these songs the mundane becomes magical and the banal goes wild.
A fine example is “Daily Routine,” which, with its cut-up organ flourishes, vocal harmonies, and fat hip-hop beats sounds like a Timbaland remix of Yes’ “Close to the Edge.” However, in contrast to the mysticism of Yes songs and the vulgarity of much of hip-hop, “Daily Routine” lyrically depicts the pedestrian events the title implies, “Make sure my kid’s got a jacket / And coat and shoes and hat. / Strap a stroller to my back / Bouncing along every crack.” The true genius comes in the second part of the song, all slow, echoing, reverb-drenched drone over which the lines “Just a sec more…in my bed / Hope my machine’s working right” are sung repeatedly, musically re-creating the feeling of wanting to hit the snooze button in the morning.
Despite the many details and colors of the music, it is the simple exuberance of many of these songs that keeps me listening to them over and over again. I love the counter-intuitive brilliance of closing the album with a song as enthusiastic, infectious, and stadium-ready as “Brother Sport.” I smile and marvel at the audacity of filling the hand-clapping pop anthem chorus of “My Girls” with the so not rock-n-roll lines, “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things / (like a social stance) / I just want four walls and adobe slats for my girls / (Woooooooh!)” Taken together, the songs of this album set forth a refreshing view of life in which the hottest party is at home with the family, and nothing is more exciting than spending time with the ones you love. In my opinion it’s a mature perspective to express with such wild and childish sounds. Due to this album’s sonic inventiveness, its musical hyperactivity, its total lack of cynicism and negativity, and it’s all-around positive energy and joyousness, I can’t really imagine an album coming out any time this year that I will like more than this one. Ultimately this is why I feel this is the one album among so many that is worth the time of the not-usually-patient listener: the more you listen to it, the more it may make you happy.