Animal Collective “Kinda Bonkers”

“Kinda Bonkers” artwork

Expecting anything from Animal Collective is dumb; they’ll break your heart every time. With Animal Collective, the unexpected comes part and parcel with their greatness. So, in many ways, it’s a welcome reprieve that “Kinda Bonkers”—the first track from their new The Painters EP— has the schema of a great Animal Collective song: that starchy syncopation, that submerged production, that drugs and campfire vibe. For a band that aims overtly to never repeat itself, this could very easily sneak onto, say, 2008’s Water Curses.

Though the sound calls to the past, the spirit of “Kinda Bonkers” remains in sync with the present, no doubt because it was culled from Painting With’s dinosaur-laden recording sessions. Like much of Painting With, these spirits don’t really bubble forth from primordial cauldrons so much as they spill forth from sippy cups, but it’s still kinda the same idea. Avey Tare sings as if he’s rediscovering the syllables of “bonkers,” while underneath him the band rediscovers the simplicity of modular synth raga. It’s loving, sweet, and playful. You expect a pop song to recapture the raw feelings of teen adolescence, but this primal, childlike exploration of basic instincts is anything but innocent.

Radiohead : A Moon Shaped Pool

With their ninth studio album, Radiohead move beyond the existential angst that made them music’s preeminent doomsayers, pursuing a more personal—and eternal—form of enlightenment.

Amoeba Music

Radiohead, who titled their ninth studio album A Moon Shaped Pool, have a unique grasp on how easily profundity can slip into banality. Their music is obsessed with the point where great truths harden into platitudes, where pure signal meets wretched noise. In the past, Thom Yorke has sharply peppered his lyrics with everyday cliches to suggest a mind consumed by meaningless data, but on the new album, he largely moves beyond cynicism. He is now considering simpler truths in a heretofore-unexplored register: wonder and amazement. “This goes beyond me, beyond you,” he sings on “Daydreaming.” “We are just happy to serve you.” There is no concealed razor under Yorke’s tongue as he offers this thought, or in the pearly music that surrounds him. It sounds for all the world like the most cloistered and isolated soul in modern rock music opening up and admitting a helplessness far more personal than he’s ever dared. Yorke has flirted with surrender before, and on A Moon Shaped Pool, that submission feels nearly complete.

The album is framed by two older pieces of music that act as gateways to the darker, unfamiliar waters within. Opener “Burn the Witch” has been floating around, in some form or another, since Kid A. “This is a low-flying panic attack,” Yorke announces, explicitly linking to the bad old days of air crashes, iron lungs, and wolves at doors. (In fact, several of the song’s lyrics—“avoid all eye contact,” “cheer at the gallows”—first appeared in the album art to 2003’s anti-Bush polemic Hail to the Thief.) Meanwhile, Jonny Greenwood’s brittle modernist string arrangement reinforces the angst, turning the orchestra into a giant pair of gnashing teeth. It’s a vintage splash of Radiohead stomach acid, a cloud of gnats unleashed in your cranial nerves.

It also feels like an exorcism for what follows: a plunge into something scarier than the military industrial complex, or the insidious nature of propaganda, or human nature’s disturbing tendency towards unquestioning obedience. Yorke separated from his partner of 23 years and the mother to his two children last August, and on “Identikit,” he sings “Broken hearts make it rain” and “When I see you messin’ me around, I don’t want to know.”

That isn’t to say that this is necessarily a “break-up album.” Separations (particularly those involving children) take place in the harsh light of day, with lawyers’ appointments and checklists and logistical arrangements. Radiohead albums are the stuff of dreams and nightmares, and the band retains a healthy resistance to clarity; their music is a maze of signs you can peer into any way you like. Even so, the impact of trauma, a sort of car crash of the soul, is palpable. The music here feels loose and unknotted, broken open in the way you can only be after a tragedy. “There’s a spacecraft blocking out the sky,” Yorke observes on “Decks Dark,” as choral voices pass overhead. The scene is straight from 1997’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” but here Yorke doesn’t sound “uptight.” He sounds utterly drained, as if impending invasion doesn’t concern him at all.

A song title like “Glass Eyes” hints at many of the band’s longstanding morbid preoccupations—the semblance of humanity in something cold and dead, or the violation of the biological body by foreign objects—but the song is a bloodflow of strings straight into the heart. “Hey it’s me, I just got off the train,” Yorke sings, and it’s a strikingly ordinary image: the Paranoid Android himself, picking up the phone and calling someone to tell them he’s just arrived. “I feel this love turn cold,” he confesses as the ballad draws to a close, the phrasing an echo, subconscious or not, of his Kid Asign-off “I’ll see you in the next life.” A throbbing cello appears like a lump in the throat; the song fades away.

Throughout the album, Yorke’s everyday enlightenment is backed by music of expanse and abandon. The guitars sound like pianos, the pianos sound like guitars, and the mixes breathe with pastoral calm. “The Numbers,” a song about the impending apocalypse brought on by climate change, meanders along, its groove as wide as an ocean. Even the malevolent synth wave that passes through “Ful Stop” sounds like a visitor, a momentary darkness rather than a caged spirit. As the song builds, the band works up a coursing groove that will feel familiar to longtime fans, with its interlocking guitars and an arterial bustle of rhythms serving to launch Yorke’s wordless moan. It’s a sound that Radiohead has spent the last decade honing, but the payoff here is deeper and more gratifying than it has been in a while.

The added dimension comes from Yorke, who pumps fresh oxygen into these songs, many of which have existed in sketch-like forms for years. On the lonely folk hymn “Desert Island Disk,” he sings of an epiphanic experience: “The wind rushing ‘round my open heart/An open ravine/In my spirit white.” As a vision of transformation, it feels like the inverse to Amnesiac’s “Pyramid Song,” where his only companions were the dead; here, he is “totally alive.”

And then there’s “True Love Waits.” It’s an old song, one that has been around in various forms for over two decades, but unlike “Burn the Witch” or the other teased sketches and scraps that Radiohead diehards pick apart on forums, it’s long been a part of their canon. It appeared on the 2001 live album I Might Be Wrong and, dragged into 2016, feels like a relic from a different geological era. “I’ll drown my beliefs,” Yorke sings, “just don’t leave.” It is the message they leave us with, this very open-hearted song that has always felt like an open wound in their discography, a geyser of feeling erupting out of scorched earth. Its very inclusion is a striking moment of transparency.

The version here is just Yorke and a piano, so reverberant and echo-drenched that it feels like we’ve stuck our heads inside it. Yorke croons tenderly, never opening up into his chest voice. It’s sung to one person this time, not crowds. In its mundane visions of “lollipops and crisps,” the lyrics purposefully skirt doggerel, an acknowledgment that cliches can be, in fact, where all the action is. “I’m not living/I’m just killing time,” the 47-year-old admits. You can write a line like that and set it to music; you can perform it for years in front of adoring millions; you can carry the idea around in your heart and mind. But it might take a lifetime for it to strike, as it does here, with a newfound power. The truth, as always, lies in plain sight, right there in the kicking and the squealing, the panic and the vomit. Some truths just take longer to see than others.

Animal Collective : Painting With

Like 2012’s Centipede HzPainting With is a bright, epileptically busy piece of music that crams every element of Animal Collective’s sound into a landscape without depth or recess. It 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.

Amoeba Music

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.


Painting With

by Animal Collective

Released February 19th, 2016 on Domino Records

12 Tracks

  1. FloriDada 4:05
  2. Hocus Pocus 3:17
  3. Vertical 4:15
  4. Lying in the Grass 3:34
  5. The Burglars 2:44
  6. Natural Selection 2:42
  7. Bagels in Kiev 2:48
  8. On Delay 3:49
  9. Spilling Guts 1:58
  10. Summing the Wretch 3:09
  11. Golden Gal 4:42
  12. Recycling 4:07

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