Though I've been listening to it since its release five weeks ago, I've felt no need to offer up much here about Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion. Plenty of other bloggers, journalists, and all-around fanatics have done enough, you don't need me to pile on. Your level of interest in the band and album, whatever it may be, is likely cemented by now.
Plus, it didn't exactly sink its teeth into me the way Strawberry Jam did this time last year—my first real exposure to the band. Not to say Merriweather's not good—it's arguably better, if only because it's more cohesive, more enjoyable in terms of melodic hooks and danceable rhythms, and just sounds tremendous—just that I... it didn't... I don't know. It didn't unlock me, or I didn't unlock it, the way Strawberry Jam and I got on. (On the other hand, my brilliant wife has been captivated by Merriweather—and Person Pitch, for that matter—but has never felt the connection with the other Animal Collective albums we own.)
We bought Merriweather the day it came out. We went to Amoeba after work and bought the disc, then we just drove around the Hollywood Hills for an hour while the album boomed out of our car's speakers. What a first impression! It felt flawless. Yet after two weeks of playing it regularly I noticed that my urge to put it on dropped to nil. Was this going to be another In Rainbows? That's another album I can say is quantifiably "great"—thematically cohesive, full of melodic hooks and danceable rhythms, sounds tremendous—yet has exerted no pull on me whatsoever since around late November 2007. Occasionally I put it on and remind myself that I have no complaints with the record, that it ranks among the band's best, that it even sparks wild pleasures in many of its tracks, yet it still lacks something, some connection. Like a girlfriend you have everything in common with but for whatever reason lacks that intangible spark. In Rainbows and I are solidly in the friend zone. Will Merriweather be the same?
It's hard to know. I will say this, though: seeing Animal Collective at the Troubadour on Saturday night—my first time seeing them—went a helluva long way toward taking this relationship to the next level. It was easily the best show I've seen in at least two or three years. I'm a guy who, when it comes to music, can find some opinion to articulate, some critique to offer, some vantage point from which to asses what I'm seeing or hearing or experiencing. So it's meaningful to me that watching Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Geologist on stage reduced me to little more than fuuuuuuuuuuck for about 90 minutes. Two days later I'm able to offer a few fragments of what else passed through my mind:
- It says something that, of all songs, they opened with Strawberry Jam's weirdest track, "#1," and that, of all songs, it truly felt like the party was about to start. Though I like the recorded version, it's purpose on Strawberry Jam seems to be more of an opportunity to catch your breath—not to prepare you for more exhileration. The song felt transformed here.
- It says something that they didn't play a number of my favorite songs—"For Reverend Green," "Peacebone," "Banshee Beat," "Grass," "Bluish"—yet I came away from the show feeling wholly satisfied.
- So often I hear people break down Animal Collective's songs and albums in terms of the band's singers—Strawberry Jam is "an Avey Tare record," "My Girls" is "a Panda Bear song"—but seeing the level of collaboration on every single song—each member clearly enhancing the efforts of the others—gave me a new appreciation of this band's songwriting prowess.
- Or, if we are going to assign each album to one member's creative genius, may I humbly submit that Merriweather may well be "a Geologist album"? He seemed to be doing nearly all the heavy lifting, musically speaking, from where I was standing.
This week I'm back on a Merriweather kick, and I feel like the album is taking in a way it hadn't before. It's as if I'd previously known a truth about the record—that it was good—the way a scientist knows knows a truth. I could measure it, could describe it, could list its qualities as if it were a species of insect. But after Saturday's show I know the same truth in a much more personal, real way. I think I do, at least. Maybe the shine will wear off a second time. We'll see. But I'm reminded of something Matthew Perpetua said in a conversation for the Fader when Merriweather first came out, which I think was probably the most on-point thing I read about Animal Collective amidst all the hullaballoo that surrounded the new album's release:
[I]t's sorta astonishing how they're arguably the indie rock band of this decade, the one group who legitimately brought in a new aesthetic for what we know as indie rock, and they do not rock at all, and they rarely play guitars. If you go back to the late '90s, people were really angsty about guitars, and how they were inevitably at the center of indie music. And now we're ten years later, and that audience is now totally in thrall of an album that is almost entirely keyboards, samples, drum machines and harmonized vocals. The acclaim for Merriweather is refreshing to me because you can't really point to another record like it, at least outside the Animal Collective catalog. It's a legit breakthrough for a band that came up with their own sound in a time when most artists seem to operate under the notion that "it's all been done." It makes me happy that people are excited about something that feels new.
I think Merriweather Post Pavilion is the first really great record they've made, and certainly the most disciplined and focused. At the same time, I think we have a lot of better bands. But those aren't the bands that introduced a new aesthetic for "indie music," such as it is. Maybe the thing I should be saying is actually "music for artsy (mostly white) people in their late teens to early 30s, educated and at least relatively affluent." When I was a teen, that band was Pavement. In the late ’90s/turn of the century, it was Radiohead. In the late ’00s, it's undoubtedly Animal Collective.
I had no argument with Perpetua when I first read this, but seeing Animal Collective live really brought it home. This was a band at the height of confidence—a rare thing to see, more impressive than merely being at the height of talent. These were artists charting new territory, and boldly.
- Animal Collective: Bluish