In the early 2000s, indie rock – a genre once characterized by dissonance, subversion and exclusivity – was in the throes of an identity crisis. Musical classifications are often fluid, but indie rock has long been defined by rigid boundaries. No bullshit, no capitulations to the mainstream; guitars, sternly crossed arms, seven-inch singles, glasses. It’s hard to say when, precisely, indie rock loosened its grip on itself. Perhaps the music industry’s clumsy response to file sharing (and, later, streaming) meant that musicians of all types had to be less scrupulous about making a living. Perhaps the success of Radiohead’s 2000 experimental album “Kid A,” which enriched the guitar with an array of electronics, broadened the musical palette of a new generation. For a while, I wouldn’t have known how to define indie rock – maybe it was folk, or heavy, or twee, or danceable – and there didn’t seem to be much reason to try.
Towards the end of the decade, a series of major releases – “Veckatimest” by Grizzly Bear, “Bitte Orca” by Dirty Projectors, “Innerspeaker” by Tame Impala and “Merriweather Post Pavilion” by Animal Collective – inadvertently gave the genre a new music center. . These records were melodious and hazy, lush and eerie. They contained a little guitar, but just as much synthesizer. The instrumentation was often inscrutable, the vocal harmonies were warm and elaborate, and the singles had legs: “Two Weeks” by Grizzly Bear, “Stillness Is the Move” by Dirty Projectors, “Expectation” by Tame Impala and “My Girls from Animal Collective. all have found a foothold in the culture, shaping the future of not just the indie scene, but popular music more broadly. In 2009, Jay-Z, Beyoncé and her sister, Solange, were spotted swinging at a Grizzly Bear show in Brooklyn. Jay-Z told MTV, “What the indie-rock movement is doing right now is very inspiring.” Later that year, Solange released a dynamic and fluid cover of “Stillness Is the Move”. In 2016, Rihanna included a Tame Impala song she called “Same Ol’ Mistakes” on her eighth album, “Anti,” and Beyoncé nodded to Animal Collective’s “My Girls” on ” 6 Inch”, a track from his album “Lemonade”. .”
Of these new groups, Animal Collective, which formed in Baltimore in 2003, was the most ambitious and controversial. Its four members adopted curious nicknames – Avey Tare (Dave Portner), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Deakin (Josh Dibb) and Geologist (Brian Weitz) – and often performed in costume. Their videos conveyed an experience akin to being on a heavy dose of psychedelic drugs. The first time I heard “Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished” – an album originally credited to Avey Tare and Panda Bear in 2000 – I didn’t know what to do but curl up on the ground, close your eyes and dissociate yourself. It looked, to me, like a million distant meteors slamming into each other, lighting up the sky on a dripping summer night. Experimental music purists might scoff at my bewilderment – admittedly, musicians all over the world have been churning out extremely strange sounds for millennia – but I found the band’s soundscapes captivating. I was not the only one. Although its music was not immediately palatable, Animal Collective developed a devoted following in the tradition of the Grateful Dead, with fans cataloging and obsessively sharing live broadcasts online. Those who found the band unlistenable considered it a Brooklyn-based contagion.
In February, Animal Collective will release “Time Skiffs”, their eleventh full-length studio album and first in six years. Due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, songs were recorded remotely, with each band member working from their home studio. The album’s lyrics suggest how hard it can be to insist on levity when the world drags you down to despair. But most of the time, “Time Skiffs” is about time itself: how fleeting and yet endless it is sometimes, how our changing experience of it can cloud our way of thinking about everything else. On “Car Keys”, singer Lennox sings: “And the minutes can’t make up their mind / Just how long they’d like to be”. On “Strung with Everything”, the band’s loud and chaotic instrumentation reflects the experience of detaching from space and time. Portner, the band’s other vocalist, sings to feel afloat:
After more than two years of isolation, confusion, existential compulsion and outbursts of panic, it is strangely gratifying to hear these feelings not only articulated but made beautiful.
Animal Collective has always been musically indebted to the Beach Boys (on “Person Pitch,” Lennox’s third solo album, his reverb-laden voice sounds suspiciously like Brian Wilson’s), but the band tends to drown out its melody, relying more on the avant-garde. -guard contact points. “Walker”, set to “Time Skiffs”, is named after Scott Walker, whose deep, simmering baritone made him a teen-pop sensation in the UK in the 1960s. Later in his career, Walker used his vocals to more extreme ends, making dark, experimental records that wavered between overwhelming and gorgeous. Walker died in 2019, and Lennox described the song as a tribute. It’s my favorite track on the new album – bouncy, airy, almost goofy, with xylophone, hurdy-gurdy and a monophonic synthesizer known as the Waldorf Purse. Lennox’s voice is light and sweet:
Since “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” released in 2009, forty-three-year-old Lennox has been writing fervently about his experience of adulthood, particularly what it means to become a partner and a parent (him and his wife, the Portuguese fashion designer Fernanda Pereira, have two children), and the desires that these experiences have awakened. These stories, which are tender and human, often provide a counterbalance to the distant instrumentation of Animal Collective. “My Girls,” with all its whirling synthesizers and choppy, shifting beats, is still a song about wanting to provide for your family. “But with a baby girl, and by my wife / I only want a real home,” Lennox sings. “Four walls and adobe slats / For my daughters.” After a youngster has spent happily crashing on linoleum floors or bouncing between exotic locales, what’s it like to wake up craving a driveway? The song’s stretchy, rubbery melody makes this psychic discombobulation heavenly, beautiful.
Lyrically, “Time Skiffs” is less explicit about those kinds of desires, but Lennox’s preoccupation with the passage of time is still evident, touching on a different (if not less inescapable) part of becoming an adult: watching your kids grow up and your parents grow old, wondering what is still possible and what to leave behind. The clock ticks a little harder every year. Or, as Lennox says on “Prester John,” “Treat everyday / Like a picture of a moment / It’s gone.”
It’s hard to say if “Time Skiffs” is one of Animal Collective’s most accessible records or if the band’s signature sound has been imitated enough to no longer sound so singular and disorienting. Or maybe twenty years is enough to orient yourself towards the group’s unique cosmology. I’m not sure that in 2004, when I first listened to “Sung Tongs”, the group’s hallucinogenic fifth album, I would have bet on Animal Collective becoming one of the most influences of the new millennium. These days, however, it’s hard not to hear his strange magic everywhere. ♦