The Sound and Fury of Animal Collective
One of my favorite releases from last year was a compilation of tracks from pioneering hip-hop rabble-rouser Steinski; a career-spanning retrospective that assembled some of the artist’s best and most (in)famous sonic collages, the set was ambiguously titled What Does it All Mean?, a question that can be interpreted as either irony or provocation. For many, Steinski’s art exemplifies the ethos of the postmodern age, as he stitches together snippets of sound from old records, TV shows and movies in a way that shows no regard for stylistic or cultural boundaries—in a way that, one might propose, rejects any notion of narrative or overarching historical meaning. I would argue, though, that the question asked by the set’s title—a question repeated in several of the album’s tracks—is asked in earnest. There is nothing at all haphazard about the way Steinski strings together different sounds, genres, and worldviews; indeed, his work seems to be informed by a very deep understanding of history, and his music deliberately juxtaposes both similar and contrasting elements as a way of seeking out the underlying meaning. The song called “Jazz” isn’t just a random assortment of jazz, funk, and hip-hop sounds, but an exploration of how the three genres are related, how their historical evolution has been played out and continues to develop. Thus, though his idiom may be collage, it is not pastiche; though his sources may be far-reaching and at times confusing, they are meant to evoke meaning, not shun it.
The central question of Steinski’s work is fundamentally irrelevant to the work of Animal Collective, a band that will, in all likelihood, top every year-end list to emerge from the indie blogosphere in 2009. I know that because the tastemakers and trendsetters at sites like Pitchfork Media and Stereogum have made it clear that they’ve essentially already picked Animal Collective’s latest album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, as the year’s finest record, even as early as January 5, the day Pitchfork awarded it an uncommonly high score and a glowing review. In subsequent days, these and other publications praised the album in such lofty terms as to suggest that, for all intents and purposes, their minds were already made up; when a blogger at Stereogum asked, “Is Merriweather Post Pavilion the Album of the Year?” it seemed to be, for the most part, a rhetorical question.
Much of the hype surrounding the album stems from the fact that, while Animal Collective has traditionally been very much a critic’s band, with a sound that isn’t exactly accessible and certainly not mainstream, MPP finds them taking a step toward a more inclusive, inviting sound. And that’s not a false claim, but it is an exaggerated one, because Animal Collective’s music is deliberately designed to keep listeners at arm’s length, to eschew any larger sense of meaning, history, or community.
This is true pastiche. Unlike Steinski’s work, Animal Collective borrows largely unrelated musical devices—Brian Wilson harmonies, tribal percussion, ELO synth flourishes—but pastes them together in a way that is divorced from any larger sense of history or tradition. These elements are simply stitched thrown together in a way that may be both imaginative and, at times, quite enjoyable, but it doesn’t lead to any greater understanding of the relationship between the disparate elements, because no such relationship exists, at least not in Animal Collective’s universe. Their music is simply an assortment of influences and sounds, woven together masterfully, but not with any sense of history, not with any underlying meaning.
Divorced from tradition, their music is simply hipster eclecticism for the sake of hipster eclecticism. Latching on to a particular sonic device—be it the Beach Boys influences or the tribal drumming—leads only to a dead end, because the different sounds and styles aren’t put together in a way in which they interact with one another. This is not music in which different styles or cultures dialogue with one another; rather, they simply exist together, in a vacuum, as a mere collection of sounds with no connection to tradition and no sense of overarching narrative. To say that Animal Collective doesn’t sound like they belong to any particular era—something that their fans might hold up as a virtue—is in fact an understatement, as the band even seems to reject any sense of linear time with their hodgepodge of tropes and ideas.
Meanwhile, the new album from PPP—an album that, as far as I can tell, has received zero attention from the indie bloggers—weaves together a far greater range of sounds and genres than the AC crew does, but in such a way as to encompass eras and cultures, rather than reject them out of hand. It’s an album with a distinct line of meaning running through it, as the PPP duo crafts a sound that borrows from both modern and vintage R&B, rock, soul, funk, and hip-hop in a way that puts the genres in dialogue with one another, reveals the common threads that unite them, highlights the connections and even makes a few new ones. Where the AC album is content to simply throw sounds together into a blender, the PPP record actually explores them, considers them, looks for meaning and substance in them. And unlike the AC album, listening to the PPP one might actually lead you into a greater understanding of music itself, as it comprehends the crossroads of, say, Motown soul and modern-day Detroit R&B in a way that reveals the implicit history, so that a fan of one genre might be lead into a greater understanding and appreciation of the other.
So, while PPP creates an album that encompasses different cultures, eras, and ideas from our world, Animal Collective creates their own world from our spare parts, one that has little to do with the universe in which we actually live. Their music is decontextualized so as to be largely devoid of meaning, and even when you hear a familiar sound or what might seem to be a touchstone, the music deliberately frustrates any effort you make to make connections or draw conclusions. It’s an album full of questions to which there are no answers, and so while it may be very stylish, one can’t help but feel that it’s also a bit futile. And it’s also music that exists apart from tradition or history, which means that it’s insular—music that must be addressed on its own terms, but also music that deliberately and defiantly fences listeners out rather than draws them in, no matter how supposedly accessible the album is said to be. And that’s the great irony of Animal Collective—they can stir up some of the most deliriously creative music in all of indie rock, but they limit their own scope to the point that they’re basically just cooking up sound and fury.