Animal Collective: “Merriweather Post Pavilion”
Originally, indie rock was supposed to be all about inclusion– the sound of a big community, drawn from people of all walks of life, coming together to celebrate the act of making music.It was never supposed to be the realm of hipsters and elitists, at least not exclusively; actually, if you listen to proto-indie albums like Paul McCartney‘s Ram and McCartney II— albums that laid the foundations for indie with their homespun craft and DIY aesthetic– what you hear is just the opposite. These aren’t albums about shutting people out, but about bringing people together. They’re the sound of a bunch of friends getting together in a big room, singing at the top of their lungs and banging around on pots and pans, inviting the listener at home to join in.
So what happened? Though this spirit is very much alive and well in indie rock, the waters have become clouded and the lines a bit blurred. Spend much time scanning the archives at Pitchforkmedia.com– the ultimate trendsetters for the indie hipster crowd– and you’re likely to find that half of the albums most celebrated by the indie rock set are ones that are willfully difficult, insular, at times just plain weird. And of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; a lot of the best music is the stuff that really challenges. It’s more a matter of attitude. For many who exist outside the indie walls, the entire genre seems to give off vibes of exclusivity and elitism. Within these walls, the music of choice is that which can only be enjoyed by a select few, and they wear their indie refinery like a badge of honor– and for those on the outside, like a Do Not Enter sign.
But these are generalizations. Last year, TV on the Radio released one of the year’s most celebrated (both by indie and mainstream listeners) albums, Dear Science, a fight-the-power manifesto in more ways than one. The album spoke to the darkness of the present age with feisty resistance and spiritual zeal, and paired its poetic meditations and rallying cries with white-hot dancefloor beats, far-out funk, and enormous pop hooks. It wasn’t an album just for the hip; it was an album for everyone, and its infectious grooves made it feel as much like a crack in the indie wall as a manifesto for the age of Obama.
This year, the tastemakers at Pitchfork (and, seemingly, the entire blog-o-sphere) have already chosen Animal Collective’s new album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, as 2009’s hot ticket, and, whether they know it or not, that selection says a lot about where indie rock is headed. Animal Collective is a long-time favorite in indie circles, their music born out of a tension between the divergent aesthetics of its two principles, the abrasive, experimental inclinations of Avey Tare and the pop smarts and Brian Wilson worship of Panda Bear. Past AC albums have often been thought by fans to favor one approach over the other, but the two exist in greater balance than ever before on Merriweather, which effectively makes the album a study in tension.
Yes, this is Animal Collective’s pop album, as early buzz suggested long before the album was ever actually heard. But of course, this is pop done indie-style, or, more precisely, Animal Collective-style, which means that while the album is easily the most accessible they’ve yet made– its emphasis on dance-ready beats is somewhat similar to Dear Science, though its grooves are decidedly more droning and less funky– it also sounds as though the band couldn’t quite bring themselves to made an all-out pop record, so, almost as an afterthought, they clouded the record’s hooks with their typically dissonant production, so even though it’s almost entirely divorced from Tare’s usual yelping and his more abrasive inclinations, it’s still an album that keeps the listener at a bit of a distance, forcing us to admire the grooves from afar rather than get caught up in them.
In other words, it’s not quite the indie dance party some were expecting it to be. Animal Collective’s music has always borrowed tropes from other genres– here, there are worldbeats aplenty, and of course a few of Panda’s Beach Boy flourishes– without ever seeming to find its roots in any particular tradition, and that sense of dislocation seems especially vivid on Merriweather, where the record flows like a hazy stream of melody and rhythm, with glitchy synths and organ flourishes slipping in and out of the music. The band’s craft is impeccable; the album seems to have its own swaying rhythm that’s completely hypnotizing. But it also has the feeling of being a tad insular, despite the songs crying out to be more embraceable and warm. The Collective doesn’t create many easy entrance points into this music– the delirious, almost tribal pop of “My Girls” and the closing sing-along “Brothersport” are the only songs that clearly stand out from the rest of the record’s unrelenting flow– which makes this dance party feel an awful lot like an experiment.
But the album isn’t necessarily to be faulted for not being completely accessible; actually, this record feels a bit like a puzzle, and fitting all the pieces together is half the fun. And it’s clearly the work of its twin masterminds, their unique and divergent personalities spilling over into every note, alternating between tension and harmony. Indeed, there’s more harmony here than on any previous AC album, which means this is the gateway through which they are likely to win a few new fans, and it’s the first album in their catalog that doesn’t feel uneven, with every track here fitting into the overall scheme. Still, its feel is distinct from the TV on the Radio album; where Dear Science, seemed to open its arms wide, calling every listener within easrshot to join in its affirming and intoxicating grooves, Merriweather casually teases listeners, and doesn’t seem to care whether they accept its invitation or not. So many– including this humble critic– will find its complexity to be alluring, but just as many will find it to be a bit maddening.
Like the TV on the Radio album, it’s clearly born of a specific time and place, but where David Sitek and Co. addressed trying times with headlong ferocity, Panda and Tare take the very opposite approach, retreating from economic and global turmoil with a set of songs that are striking in their domestic focus. These songs are, bizarrely, rather sentimental, their warmth often seeming at odds with the cold production– which either makes the album that much more bewitching or perplexing, depending on who you are. AC sings about getting lost in the curls of an anonymous beauty, about casting off material things in favor of simple family life, about heartfelt, fraternal comfort. The lyrics, as much as the pulsing rhythms of the more pop-oriented songs, provide this record with its beating heart, and make it one that’s ultimately rewarding despite sometimes being frustrating. And perhaps that’s the best way to sum up the state of indie rock in 2009, at least the way Animal Collective sees it– its gates are widening ever so carefully, but it’s still a party you have to work to get into.