Rantings, reviews and lists from a person who structures half his life around obsessing over music.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009)

5.0 ★/10.0

Some might say that in order to better understand Animal Collective's sound on Merriweather Post Pavilion it would've been beneficial to see them live on one of their recent tours. For about a year, the bulk of the band's sets consisted of many of the songs recorded here, so, for many hardcore fans, it might be easy to assume this is just a compilation of all of Animal Collective's best live moments; a perfect distillation of that enchanting feeling one got from watching them. Surely, if this recorded material could only be called one thing, it would be "enchanting". And the live Animal Collective experience is certainly every bit as seductive. They usually play the songs without gaps, strung together by drones and fragmentary interludes, creating the simulation of one long track. When surrounded by innumerable dancing and sweating bodies, and blinded by a hallucinatory lighting design, the music takes on a captivating element of hypnotic bliss. For this past year, watching Animal Collective live was like stepping into another world.

But to say that Merriweather Post Pavilion is just a performance document and a treat for the fans would be lessening its distinct monumental value as an album. As a matter of fact, this material could only have been made for headphones; there's just too much going on at any given moment to be properly translated with a live show. The hooks of "My Girls" are undeniable in any form, but the subtleties of the songs' erratic and gradually diversifying drum-and-bass beat was never as exhilarating as it is here. On the surface, "Guys Eyes" is a simple melody delivered with a soulful undistorted piano and stick percussion, but it takes dozens of in-depth listens to separate all the swirling layers of voices from one another. Furthermore, Pet Sounds b-side, "Bluish", was never even played live, but on the album it's clearly one of the best songs; a flawless pop centerpiece holding both halves of the album together.

It's also important to take into account that some songs don't stand up individually too well. Live, "Also Frightened" was just a messy collage of sounds and electronics but with the benefit of close listening, the groove-oriented rhythm and soaring breaks are given room to breath and fit appropriately into the sequencing. Similarly, "In The Flowers" once seemed to be a listless and underwhelming ballad, but when set as the opening track, it's perfect. The song opens with indecipherable noise, as if to signify all the obstacles from your daily life, before Avey Tare's otherworldly chants lulls you into a calm. He slyly suggests a form of relief; "If I could just leave my body for one night..." All of a sudden the band shows what he's talking about, with a blast of holy radiation. Heavenly synths rain down from the skies and the listener is drawn straight into the world of Merriweather Post Pavilion with the intention of discovering the euphoria this intro has hinted at.

With that mission statement, the rest of the album even appears to take on an almost Odysseus-like pilgrimage, which makes it resonate deeply on a conceptual level and further distinguishes it from a collection of "songs from the shows". Assuming that the tripped out album cover is not a coincidence, the album could be seen as an argument for subconscious exploration, whether that journey is embarked upon through drugs, dreams, music or any other form of therapy. The first track resembles going to sleep and entering the sub consciousness; taking the drug; beginning the album. The following eight tracks represent the deranged trip through the minds' tangled weaves with various ups and downs. The textural feast, "Daily Routine", for example, is practically a wrestling match with the self. It begins with a bright synth making noise at arbitrary intervals, taunting the listener. But it soon gels together, becoming a piercing hole in the clouds, and raining light at the end of each of Panda Bear's joyful lines, as if leading us on. At the bridge, the hole in the cloud finally stays open and widens, letting the light swallow everything up into a binding fog. The epiphany that the listener is looking for seems to almost be reached; but at this early stage of the album, it's clearly just as frightening as it is revelatory. Panda Bear's voice is malformed and surrounded by a formless haze, reverb and powerful piano chords swirling about before somberly drifting away. "Summertime Clothes", a single-worthy pop song, is much more clear-headed and positive sounding, but it's still inseparable from the mental muck; the sound of two sheets of metal being rhythmically rubbed together recreate a shroom trip, with everything moving, breathing and blurring together. "Lion in a Coma" goes on to reflect this confusion lyrically: "Sometimes I'm not aware where I am or what I care, Sometimes I'm well-to-do but I don't know what to do!" After a long stretch of fake-outs and misadventures though, a definite epiphany is reached on the simple yet beautiful "No More Runnin"...and it's surprisingly quiet. Nighttime finally falls in the mystical land of Merriweather Post Pavilion and the narrator seems ready to face his fears and challenges head on: "No more runnin...it's what I hoped for..." yawns a collection of sleepy voices in the distance. The final track, "Brothersport" takes that new initiative and charges forward with a fiery determination; straight faced optimism is abound with chants like "you've got to open up your throat!" and "You gotta have a real good time!" After a wonderful bridge in which Animal Collective get as close to Trance as they've ever gotten, the song breaks into one last orgasm of harmony. For 2 minutes, the culmination of all this soul searching is chanted repeatedly over a relentless hook: "You've got so much inside, let it come right out!" When it finally ends, don't be surprised if the colors of the world suddenly appear brighter.

But even discounting the conceptual worth of Merriweather Post Pavilion, there's something inexplicably perfect about its overall sound. Songs like "Taste", a magnetized wall of sound functioning as an electro-vaudeville carnival romp, and "Lion in a Coma", a didgeridoo led drum circle, rank among some of the most creative songs in the bands' entire library, and the fact that they're merely minor complimentary songs in the scope of the album, is a clear indicator of the bands' growth. it seems that Animal Collective has utilized all the best parts of all of their past incarnations and none of their weaknesses to craft Merriweather Post Pavilion ranging from the single-mindedness and natural drones of Feels to the Pop centered outlook and electronic gurgling of Strawberry Jam, and even collecting some of the Brian Wilson worship from Person Pitch. It's the album they've been working towards making their entire career; their Dark Side of The Moon. I mention that album (instead of the more obvious touchstone, Pet Sounds), because if Radiohead is The Beatles of the decade, then Animal Collective is the Pink Floyd. Equally critically acclaimed, the band has taken the basic elements of underground music's most popular trends, perfected them, and gone beyond, into the spaced out unknown, not only influencing countless indie and underground bands in their immediate wake, but also subtly expanding the language of all music, and allowing it to evolve organically into the 21'st century. Perfection is not a strong enough word for a band as vital as Animal Collective. Artistically, this is one of the absolute peaks of our era.

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