Despite its futuristic sheen, Animal Collective’s music has always evoked a primitive kind of purity. Early on they wore masks—a gesture that connected them not only to the lucid dreams of playtime but to traditions of shamanism and present-day Mardi Gras, where people hide their faces not to disguise their natures but reveal them. Their songs morphed and rambled and writhed with the liveness of kimchi or kombucha, less finished product than something that fermented and evolved as you listened. Onstage, they looked more like astronauts than musicians; on record, they sounded less like musicians than cavemen, or lost wolves howling for an impossible moon: Modern guys seeking a spiritual basement deep below the civilized self.
Like most seekers, they get made fun of a lot. It’s actually hard to think of music whose bad reputation is more disproportionately out of balance with its good intentions than Animal Collective’s without dipping into Christian radio or trip-hop. Whether the jokes—which are mostly about drum circles, jam bands and shakily understood allusions to “shrooms”—are onto something or just contaminated by the tellers’ own personal fears is in the eye of the beholder; suffice it to say that I agree with Nietzsche when he said that it is man alone who suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.
No doubt said jokers will be happy to hear that the band prepared for their new album, Painting With, by bringing baby pools into the studio and projecting dinosaurs on the wall. Like 2012’s Centipede Hz, Painting With is a bright, epileptically busy piece of music that crams every element of the band’s sound into a landscape without depth or recess. Instead of the aquatic lullabies of Merriweather Post Pavilion or the naturalism of Sung Tongs, we get something like a1980s Frank Stella or one of Jeff Koons’ balloon dogs: Rad, synthetic and ready to jump directly into your face.
Depth and hideousness become metaphors here. Watching the rockets’ red glare over Baghdad in April, 2003, I was ready for an album like Here Comes the Indian, whose nightmarish volatility reminded me that whatever evil men do starts in the heart; after the 2008 election I vibed unapologetically with the optimism of “My Girls,” which sounded like Peter Pan taking the wheel and telling the Darling children everything was going to be all right.
Now, values and messages that once seemed implicit in the band’s music—love, freedom, the general idea that modern life is an interesting but fucked-up endeavor from which something very dear has been lost—are stitched right into the sleeves of their windbreakers. “Where’s the bridge that’s gonna take me home?” goes the coda of Painting With‘s giddy opening song, “FloriDada.” “The bridge that someone’s fighting over / That bridge that someone’s paying for / A bridge so old so let it go.” Seconds earlier, they sample the “Wipe Out,” just to make sure you know they come in peace and packed all the toys. Even the title “FloriDada,” has the quality of a joke explained. Though it pains me to say it, there are times thatPainting With feels less like Animal Collective than Animal Collective: the Ride.
In the absence of a less affable genius, there’s always elbow grease. Painting With feels, more than anything, like a kind of construction project: Each sound meticulously built and only faintly familiar, each second crammed with doodads, as though the band was worried either they or their audience might get bored. The human voice, which in the past has given their music not just a so-called human element but a devotional, almost religious glow, has been reduced to a party trick, with Avey Tare and Panda Bear trading syllables like two anxious Globetrotters. The album’s best songs—”Golden Gal,” “Recycling”—aren’t just highlights, they’re breathers.
As someone who has no hangups about admitting that this band changed not only how I think about music but how I thought about life, it’s easy to wonder if Painting With and Centipede Hz signal an ending, or at least a consequential lull. Fifteen years is longer than most bands last, let alone great ones. Part of Animal Collective’s image—or my image of them, at least—entailed fantasy of three to four guys sacrificing themselves at the foot of their loop pedals to conjure some other, bigger, more powerful god. Now, they’re parents living in different zip codes and riding the festival circuit. Panda Bear’s solo albums are more interesting than they’ve ever been and Avey Tare has kept busy, but the time that they were a bellwether for the horizon of independent music seems in ebb. Old heads will tell you that the most exciting part of seeing them live was hearing songs months, sometimes years before they came out on record: I, for example, remember being in the basement of a sushi restaurant in Charlottesville, Virginia, watching Feels before anyone knew it existed, or wading through Webster Hall to a gorgeous, slowly dawning song they later called “Banshee Beat.” The feeling of that moment is hard to describe, but it was something like standing in the light of a secret. Times change, life intervenes. Painting With was the first time the band jumped right into the studio. Work can be scheduled, magic can’t.
Correction (2/16/16 2:04 p.m.): This review previously described hearing the album Sung Tongs at a concert in Charlottesville. The album in question is Feels.