Following a wobbly path of releases and critics turning their backs on them, Animal Collective return with their most focused and assured record in ages.
ANIMAL COLLECTIVE – Time Skiffs
[Neo-Psychedelia – USA – Domino]
Let’s be real with each other… Even the most dedicated Animal Collective followers can’t hide that the critical tide had turned drastically poisonous across the ’10s after seemingly being unable to follow up a wave of acclaim. Their run of albums and EPs from 2004’s Sung Tongs through to 2009’s era-defining Merriweather Post Pavilion (and let’s not forget the outstanding companion EP Fall Be Kind released later the same year) proved to be legendary. The Baltimore based neo-psych darlings could practically do no wrong in the eyes of indie-alternative bloggers, journalists and music obsessives. 2012’s follow up to Merriweather saw the quartet pushing into noisier and more dense sonic chaos, finding the spiritual successor to their true masterpiece, 2007’s Strawberry Jam. Even though Centipede Hz is an incredible album – one that desperately needs reappraising – it seemingly wasn’t what fans and critics wanted after the blissful, melodic psych-pop gems that defined its predecessor. 2016’s Painting With pushed back into the opposite direction; their most outright sunshine pop sounding record seemed to be too lacking in their striking experimental flourishes. To give you an idea of how harshly the critical perception turned, The Quietus’ Lee Arizuno described Painting With as “absolute dogshit from start to finish”. Unscathed, AnCo entered a prolific phase afterwards, exploring much less accessible sounds with a series of trippy experimental droney works and a couple of film scores.
As a dedicated fan myself since the release of Strawberry Jam, I’ve certainly not heard any dogshit in their discography – even during the past decade’s “rough patch”. Animal Collective have always been prolific and have always changed up their sound and methodology. From the freak-folk of Sung Tongs, the largely synth and electronic leaning Merriweather, and then finding instruments again on Centipede Hz (with Panda Bear doubling up as drummer and vocalist), Animal Collective’s constant reinvention of their sound and bold desire to experiment has always been one of their most exciting assets – even if it doesn’t always land.
If any long standing band has deserved the tides to turn back in their favour, it’s Animal Collective, and fortunately this 13th full length (depending on how you count them) is the album to do it with. Lead single ‘Prester John’ showed a lot of promise and excitement in the build to Time Skiffs. Bookended with jangly percussive sounds and ambient soundscapes, within lays an absolute stormer of a song, built on a relentlessly cool bass guitar groove and escalating gang vocals. Weirdly this sounds like it could be a Tame Impala track – ironic since when Tame Impala first began to get popular they were touted to be “the next Animal Collective” in some circles. Opener ‘Dragon Slayer’ is vibrant and well textured, built on a languid but bouncing rhythm and pinches of crystalline synths. The chorus here sounds huge yet intangible in a way only AnCo can do. Again, those iconic vocal harmonies sound so much more alluring than on say, 2016’s ‘Floridada’ single. ‘Strung With Everything’ is one of the wildest cuts on the album that builds up really well and doesn’t really set flight until the second half of the near seven minute run time. After a pleasant and driving calypso flavoured psych-pop trip, the band coalesce into a cacophony of yelling, screaming, pounding percussion and clanging pianos – and it is glorious!
For those Merriweather obsessives, ‘Walker’ is probably the closest the band have come to recapturing those vibes, with such a direct and effortlessly cool sound here, with the vocal harmonies sounding remarkably sharp. Sure there are a couple of tracks that don’t quite hit so hard. With ‘Cherokee’ being the longest track and centrepiece, the melodic strengths that many of the other tracks have shown take a backseat here into somewhat indulgent sound design and texture. ‘We Go Back’ sticks out with its bratty, childlike melody, sounding like it could have sat well on Painting With. But the strengths of Time Skiffs more than make up for a couple of languid spots. Closing track ‘Royal & Desire’ is a particularly special reminder than Animal Collective can indeed make some truly beautiful, tear-jerking ballads once in a while (2005’s Feels has some superb ones). Interestingly there’s a bit of a Fleet Foxes vibe on this one, and it just seems like its been ages since we’ve heard these guys bring out a proper sad song in what is just a wonderful and surprising note to finish this lovely, colourful album on.
Time Skiffs may not be the most outrageous, wildest or most emotionally hard hitting Animal Collective record, but it is definitely as accessible and confident as Feels and even Merriweather. AnCo successfully walk the tightrope without falling too far into experimental madness on one end or sunshine pop on the other side. There are tight melodies, immersive textures and compelling performances all over this album. Even more impressive is that it doesn’t seem like anyone is going back to the well. Avey Tare, Deakin, Geologist and Panda Bear are still doing exactly what they feel like doing, only this time they are more focused and assured than they have been in years, resulting in a record that we can surely all agree is very special indeed.
Time Skiffs is out now on all formats through Domino.