When I think of Animal Collective’s fifteen year, ten album career thus far, two major albums come to mind: Feels and Merriweather Post Pavilion. These two records, monumental as they were for their own careers, were pretty impactful on my own music taste and discovery as well. Feels, the record and my first introduction to Animal Collective, was also my first introduction to real psych-indie artists, thanks to my group of friends from my summer camp days.
Up until that point the most “indie band” on my spectrum of music knowledge was probably Beck or Funeral by Arcade Fire. In fact, I think it was right after Arcade Fire had released Neon Bible and Animal Collective had released Strawberry Jam in 2007, because I remember “Fireworks” being a single that I fell in love with. Not that mentioning Arcade Fire twice (now three times) has anything to do with Painting With, or Animal Collective at all, but it does have to with me and my music taste at the time of discovering Animal Collective, which has a lot to do with what I think of their tenth record, Painting With.
To me, Animal Collective were primal. Sure, they had guitars and a plethora of reverb and delay effects, but the syncopated rhythms, drums, and randomly screamed lyrics had a viral primitive and intense feeling about it; like on “Grass” from Feels. That beginning stage of Animal Collective sounded like four cavemen, that were given some guitars and one of those Fisher-Price farm animal Speak n’ Spin’s, whose only music knowledge was that of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the actual sounds that animals make in the wild. Raw, new, and exciting, it was as close to punk as I was ever going to get. Sure, a white jewish kid really into Outkast might have been my personal version of the older generation looking at us and thinking “rock music is the devil,” but Animal Collective was the most quote-on-quote rebellious music I came to enjoy that Autumn of 2007.
Strawberry Jam, released that November 2007 however, was a very transitional album in their career, with real digital experimentation taking form. While I don’t love all of Strawberry Jam, its importance in creating their follow-up, Merriweather Post Pavilion, is very dully recognized. Merriweather Post Pavilion is one of my favorite records, and really expanded my music taste. It brought the 2009 digital advancements to their primal and Brian Wilson-influenced harmonies, while also taking some notice of dance records.
When I saw them play live at Merriweather Post Pavilion, on their Merriweather Post Pavilion tour, it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. They ramped up the end of “Brother Sport” for at least four minutes, it was perfect hype. But Animal Collective took a different turn after that middle period, and in 2012 they released Centipede Hz, a record so blasphemously “is this actually happening to us” that it sounded like they actively tried to make it unlistenable. It was as if they had decided to abandon everything they knew about music and instead just sonically insult our ears.
Painting With, their newest record, sounds of a return to “maybe we can do Merriweather again” but with less confidence. It’s like when people said “oh Kendrick Lamar could never make another Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City“, and then he made something so completely different with To Pimp A Butterfly that it blew our minds, or Kanye West’s evolution from Graduation to 808’s & Heartbreak to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to Yeezus, or Daft Punk from Alive 2007 to Random Access Memories. The point is that if you try and ride the success of the last record by trying to recreate that record again, it’ll never come out as successful.
Painting With, no matter how inspired by Dadaism or Cubism or kiddie pools or whatever else they said they had in that studio, isn’t their attempt to create three minute pop songs, or their turning of artistic forms into songwriting practices, it’s their attempt to regain the glory they had from Merriweather Post Pavilion, fifteen years into their musical careers.
Thus, Painting With is like if Kendrick made another Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, or if Kanye made two records that sound like 808’s, or if the Beatles never changed their sound since “Mercy” or “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” I can hear remnants of what was once great; moments where harmonies between Avey Tare and Panda Bear click, like the first minute of opening track “FloriDada,” but it’s nothing that sticks through the whole record, and the result – it’s disappointing.