Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
“Am I really all the things that are outside of me?”
The dreamy underwater chug of Merriweather‘s opening track “In the Flowers” isn’t an altogether surprising first offer from a band like Animal Collective. It wallows around for a few minutes, floating on Avey Tare’s gargled vocal maneuvering throughout a wash of drone and electronics, setting a tone not unfamiliar to the Collective’s prior releases, before erupting into an anthematic fight song and settling back into the fringes of arpegiated obscurity. That is typically how the band has operated in the past: exploring the outer realms of pop music and then working their way to or around its sugary core, and then back out again.
This, I think, it a very central element to Animal Collective’s approach to music in general. Many of the reviews currently bludgeoning the internet have a lot to say about the album’s directness, a conversation that really began to happen a lot more frequently with 2007’s Strawberry Jam. Like that album, Merriweather‘s most memorable moments are when the album is at its most uncompromisingly immediate. This is because the band have shown us for years that they are capable of rewarding abstraction, of mastering drone and noise and tinkering with the lines of “listenability.” The band did what it had to do, which is show their listeners that — when it comes to pop music — they don’t always have to work from the outside in.
Even the band’s meteoric career shows this ethos at work, as the last five years have found them moving further and further from the left field of indie rock’s more “challenging” acts (see 2003’s Here Comes the Indian) and closer to something that sounds unquestionably human. That’s not to say that Animal Collective have lost the imagination and confidence to challenge an audience, nor that this is simply a case of a band sacrificing experimentation for accessibility; instead, the band’s embrace of the immediate can be more comfortably read as an altogether new medium in which the band can be challenging.
Take the dewy croon of “Bluish,” for example: here, the band have taken their previous reaches to the outer limits of definability — be it of subject, speaker or sound — and re-contextualized them within a very direct love song. “Put on that dress that I like / it makes me so crazy, though I can’t say why / keep on your stockings for a while / there’s some kind of magic in the way you’re lying there.” Here, we not only find the album at its most earnest and unflinchingly unironic, we’re also afforded — through the endlessly busy noise components which occupy all of the song’s negative space — a glimpse of what makes this album so interesting. Instead of trying to answer the question of how to find order in disorientation, the song poses an entirely different question of how to create threads of chaos in a conventional order. In other words, what space for creative movement does traditional “pop” music provide us?
The answer, according to Animal Collective: quite a lot. Blog-friendly “Brothersport,” for example, gets all of its mileage from three clearly-defined movements: the first is the almost punishing repetition of two impossibly catchy hooks, followed by two minutes of hypnotic noise and piercing arpegiators, then back to the trance-inducing sugar rush of its closing minutes. Here we have what our conditioned ear tells us are two separate poles, noise and melody, essentially providing the same service and receiving equal amounts of stage time, suggesting that the two aren’t as far apart (or easily identified) as one might think.
After my first few days with this record, I likened my experience to lying on the couch and eating from a utility-sized can of frosting for two days. I felt almost guilty. Bloated with the shameless pleasure of gluttonous consumption, I knew the evidence was smudged on the corners of my mouth in sugary smears. Chris Piercy, whose analogy is unquestionably stronger, describes his time with Merriweather Post Pavilion as eating Fruitie Pebbles in a fever dream. This describes the experience more accurately in that the album’s pleasures are never simple ones. There’s something disorienting even in the band’s most direct sensibilities. More importantly, Animal Collective have proven that even the simplest of elements, like a love song or the catharsis of tragedy, have labrynthine dimensions through which we must maneuver in order to find the Ding an sich, the Thing in itself. Akin to Play Theory, especially as defined in the literary tradition, Merriweather Post Pavilion finds more reward in the continuation of play rather the than winning of the game. If it’s the hunt they’re after, then let it continue.
– Jezy Gray