What Happened to Animal Collective?
That Trainspotting clip above has haunted me for years. As a kid, I understood the notion that an artist could lose their magic, but I couldn’t comprehend how or why. When you’re young, it just doesn’t seem possible that someone so incredibly brilliant at one point in their career could eventually release the grip on whatever it is that originally gave them that power. In the ‘90s, for instance, it seemed inconceivable to me that Wu-Tang Clan would ever lose its ability to deliver mind-bending metaphorical wordplay across an album of total bangers. For all I knew, they’d keep making albums like Wu-Tang Forever... well, forever.
As you get older, the pattern of artists missing the plot becomes more familiar and understandable. I disagree with Sick Boy in the Trainspotting clip, however, as I do believe filmmakers and writers, in particular, can have sustained, incredible careers well into old age. Music artists, on the other hand, have a much harder time of it, though there are many exceptions to the rule: Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Radiohead, or A Tribe Called Quest, for instance.
Of course, the quality of music is always completely subjective. What you consider a disappointing album could have saved someone else’s life. That’s the power of the medium and one of the things that consistently keeps music so interesting. By no means am I saying artists should create with the goal of pleasing everyone. What I am saying is there is something to this phenomenon of artists gradually “falling off,” and it seems like it’s happened to another act I was convinced it wouldn’t.
For the past 10 years or so, Animal Collective has been one of my favorite bands. I found them late, around 2005's Feels, though I didn’t truly get fully on board until Strawberry Jam. (I can hear your “pffts” now, longtime AC fans.)
To my ears, through the 2000s, Animal Collective was consistently one of the most innovative and exciting acts in music. Whatever it was, the combination of Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist, and Deakin— bizarre nicknames and all— were dong something extremely rare in the indie rock space at the time: unleashing a fresh, unique sound that pushes boundaries. They seemed like they had built their own lane in psych-rock, and developed a cult following of hardcore believers in the process. Many still see 2009 as the band’s peak, when it released the masterpiece Merriweather Post Pavilion followed by the excellent follow-up EP, Fall Be Kind.
That’s where things start to get a little hazy. 2012’s Centipede Hz was a real mixed bag. I really tried to love it, but as many times as I listened to it that year, I really only liked it. There was something missing from those songs and I couldn’t pinpoint just what it was. There are exceptions like “Monkey Riches” and “Today’s Supernatural,” but there’s a prevailing vibe of darkness and abrasiveness throughout the album that just didn’t click with me. My main theory at the time— which I admit was unfair— was the inclusion of Deakin (who sat out the Merriweather era, and was still dodging questions about crowdfunding rip-offs) in the making of Centipede had fundamentally altered the band's good vibes for more aggro-territory. Either way, it’s not a fun collection of songs, but I was fine with them going that route at the time. New Animal Collective is better than no Animal Collective, I figured.
Anticipating they’d worked through whatever inspired the Centipede Hz phase, and again operating as a three-piece without Deakin, hopes were high for 2016’s follow-up, Painting With. On first listen, Painting With was almost like the anti-Centipede Hz, in that it was bright, loose, and playful. Gradually, though, it began to feel somewhat satisfying in the moment but disappointing in the long run. There’s hardly anything on that album I can recall from memory today, beyond the goofy chorus to “FloriDada,” and it was released just over a year ago. I loved that the band was shooting for short pop songs, but I found most of the LP largely forgettable.
Here’s a way to describe one of the big problems I have with Painting With. When I saw the tracklist before the album was released, there was a song listed called “Bagels in Kiev.” I really hoped it was some insane, twisted instrumental jam with no lyrics, and the title was just a kind of tossed off, inside joke. Nope, the song had a loose narrative about someone’s grandfather in Kiev, and bagels eventually factored in.
And that’s really one of my biggest problems with Animal Collective's music these days. They're almost too straightforward, less introspective, and there just doesn’t seem to be the same soul inside the songs. Once Avey Tare was giving me chills singing about just leaving his body for a night and Panda Bear was speaking on the virtues of not caring about a social status and only needing four walls and adobe slabs (for his girls). Now we're talking about bagels, Florida, and how parking lots are way too hot.
Their latest EP, The Painters, carried on the uninspiring tradition of Painting With. The first song, “Kinda Bonkers,” starts with the lyric, “Life is so french toast to me/ If you wait too long it gets black and weak.” And things don’t get much better from there, nevermind that swampy, transitionary noise-element Geologist fell in love with on Merriweather and refuses to abandon.
It’s not just the lyrics either because the group has always been about grabbing your feelings. Listen to “Did You See The Words,” from Feels. That opening, filled with children’s laughter, slowly builds into a galloping explosion of euphoria. Later on, there’s “Purple Bottle,” a love story in the only way Avey Tare could tell it, but there are so many different moments of shifts and changes— of tempo, tone, feeling, emotion— it feels like controlled, blissful chaos. There’s nothing like either of those two songs on these past two albums. So many of the songs on Centipede Hz and Painting With don’t contract or expand in similar unexpected ways; they’re more just right down the middle. And you could tell me that Animal Collective already made those songs, so why repeat themselves, but that’s not the point. It feels like their music has gradually gotten less interesting, that there’s not as much emphasis on wild, sonic exploration.
Take “Leaf House” from 2004’s Sung Tongs. That’s a quintessential Animal Collective song, right? Not too many other bands sound like that. The primitive way they use vocals to such gorgeous effect is a great example of why people fell so in love with Animal Collective. When they were on, there was nobody else trying the things they were doing and actually succeeding in making it sound almost like pop music from another dimension.
True, Sung Tongs was 13 years ago, but my point is that Animal Collective fans expect the band to experiment. They want them to get weird. In 2010, I lined up in San Francisco to see Oddsac in a movie theater because I wanted to see how strange Animal Collective could get in film format. And it was strange! Still not even sure what Oddsac was about or even if I’d enjoy watching it again, but it was interesting. Even contained some good songs.
Now, more than ever, we need more weirdness in this world. Life is better when Animal Collective is taking risks. I still see evidence that they’re trying, with their recent Coral Orgy gig in Miami, but I’m not hearing it on the records.
What I’m saying is that the music Animal Collective has released since 2009’s Fall Be Kind has, by and large, been underwhelming. Maybe it’s because it feels too straight forward, and doesn’t take enough risks. Or maybe the last two albums are seen as risks from the band members’ perspectives and it's just my expectations that are the problem? But listen to “Graze” or “What Would I Want? Sky” from Fall Be Kind. Where is that Animal Collective now?
And that’s disappointing because Animal Collective have been given enough creative license by their audience that they can afford to take big swings and miss. Instead, it feels like they’re pulling back. One more example: when I saw Animal Collective live on the Strawberry Jam tour, they ended up not playing very much from that album at all. Instead, on that tour, Animal Collective performed a lot of songs from Merriweather Post Pavilion, even though that album wouldn’t be released for another couple years. As a fan, I can confirm it was a little frustrating to not hear the songs you came to see live at an Animal Collective show, and instead have to listen to almost all new material. And yet, it was also kind of awesome. That experience kept you guessing and it made you feel like these guys were just riding a huge wave of creativity. Like, “Oh, you like the stuff on the new album? Check out the stuff we’ve got coming out in a couple years.”
Conversely, when I saw them on back-to-back nights in Oakland in 2012 on the Centipede HZ tour, they played almost all the songs from that album and the setlists remained very similar for each performance. What changed? Why play things so safe? Why do you think your fans want to see almost the exact same show twice? You guys are Animal Collective! Get weird, man! Last year, the band hosted a two-night, mini-festival in Big Sur, California. With less than 500 people in attendance, mostly being diehard fans I presume, Animal Collective still ended up repeating songs in their setlists for both nights. C’mon! Play a fan-favorite album front-to-back! Cover a different band’s album! Do something unexpected!
Hey, time passes, things change, I get it. I could have written a similar article about a countless number of bands who had success during the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, etc. The problem is I'm a fan of Animal Collective and am sincerely invested in the music they make. And I'm not trying to shame anyone who loved the last two albums. That's great. I'm kinda jealous, but it just wasn't my experience. I still think they have another classic album in them, and the recent releases still haven’t made me question that. The band just announced a new summer tour, and who knows, maybe they’ll mostly be playing songs from an album that isn’t even out yet?
And they’ve got a new EP coming out for Record Store Day, Meeting of the Waters, that was recorded in a rain forest. That sounds kinda cool. Maybe these things will restore my faith in Animal Collective. I want to keep following them to new, esoteric realms in far off galaxies. Hopefully, they haven’t fallen victim to the Sick Boy Theory.
As music fans, we always have hope.