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How Animal Collective stays quirky and hip

There is nothing predictable about the US-based quartet's music. Animal Collective's sound can be unsettlingly innovative, with psychedelic influences melding with childlike folk pop tunes

Animal Collective’s sound can be unsettlingly innovative
Animal Collective’s sound can be unsettlingly innovative

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The other night, when I played Animal Collective’s newest album, Time Skiffs, for a friend, it was a bit of a selfish experiment. I wanted to see what his reaction would be and whether it would be the same as mine had been when I first heard the unique music of the Baltimore, US-based quartet many years ago.

This was in 2009. I had picked up their then new album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, on a whim, after reading about them on some music blogs. My first reaction was a mix of two emotions: bewilderment and deep pleasure.

When the first song on Time Skiffs, Dragon Slayer, started, I looked at my friend to gauge his reaction. He looked a bit puzzled at first but soon a smile grew on his face and he started nodding to the beat. Bewilderment and pleasure. The exact same emotions I had felt when I heard Merriweather Post Pavilion.

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That’s what Animal Collective can do when you first listen to their music. Highly experimental, there’s nothing predictable about it. Their sound can be unsettlingly innovative, with techno, electronica and psychedelic influences melding with childlike folk pop tunes whose rhythms and tempo change constantly, sometimes within the same song and without any warning.

Then there are the lyrics. On Time Skiffs, as the name suggests, the recurring theme is a reflection on elapsing time and changes. In Prester John, a song that opens with a snare drum and bass riff, the lyrics, plaintively sung, open with: Let me get it here/ Let me change up before it is too late/ There’s a broken stick/ There’s a wrinkle on a leaf, it’s dried out/ Was a good long run/ With a world of good intentions by it.

By then, other things start happening in the song. A synthesiser line kicks in; then the song slows down to whisper; and then abruptly picks up again. One moment it seems to urge you to tap your feet or dance; at another, towards the end, it becomes deeply trance-like, with sounds that make you wonder what happened to the earlier melody.

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That sort of thing is normal in Animal Collective’s musical repertoire. Their music is like an ever-morphing organism, the soundscape changing often and in directions you would never expect. It is, in fact, their very own trademark signature.

The four members of the band were childhood friends and have been playing together for the past 23 years. They have also given themselves quirkily unique names. David Portner, one of the lead vocalists who also plays guitars and other instruments, calls himself Avey Tare; Noah Lennox, the other lead vocalist, and drummer, goes by Panda Bear; Josh Dibb, a multi-instrumentalist, is known as Deakin; and Brian Weitz, who’s the main electronica and sampling expert, is called Geologist.

Those monikers add to the somewhat mysterious image the band has created for itself. Although they started out in 1999, they were under the radar for a while, creating waves on the underground indie scene but remaining outside the mainstream.

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This changed with the release of Merriweather Post Pavilion. Till then, much of their music sounded otherworldly and quite weird, garnering for the band a loyal but small cult of hipster fans. Merriweather showcased their signature ability: to be both hugely experimental and melodically accessible. It took them to the mainstream. Critical acclaim poured in, their shows got bigger and were talked about more.

Merriweather Post Pavilion is considered by many to be Animal Collective’s masterpiece album. The songs on it are like deconstructed pop tunes akin to what, say, an avant-garde chef would do to a familiar dish, pulling apart all the ingredients and reassembling them differently.

They found peer approval too. Other musicians loved the album, some such as Beyoncé even sampling their music on their own albums. On her blockbuster 2016 album, Lemonade, Beyoncé sampled one of their songs, My Girls, an exquisite and intimate song that Panda Bear wrote about his own family, his wife and daughter: Isn’t much that I feel I need/ A solid soul and the blood I bleed/ But with a little girl, and by my spouse/ I only want a proper house/ There isn’t much (Isn’t much) that I feel I need (That I feel I need)/ A solid soul (A solid soul) and the blood I bleed (and the blood I bleed).

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In the years after Merriweather, the band experimented further, sometimes moving tangentially into abstract weirdness, at other times swinging to soft melodic acoustic sounds. It was too unsettling for some. Where did Animal Collective’s signature soundscape go? Well, the good news is that with Time Skiffs, the band gets back to what made it famous: pop melodies delivered in an unpredictably deconstructed form and instrumental celestial excursions that take you on trippy journeys.

Back to the other night. My friend, a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to contemporary music, heard all of Time Skiffs, sometimes with his eyes shut. And then, in the end, he told me: “This band I have to check out.” A perfect plan when it comes to Animal Collective.

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