Wednesday, July 29, 2009
#19 and #22 and #40 Albums of the Decade- Animal Collective
#19- Animal Collective- Sung Tongs (2004)
Animal Collective- "Leaf House"
#22- Animal Collective- Strawberry Jam (2007)
Animal Collective- "Peacebone"
#40- Animal Collective- Merriweather Post Pavillion (2009)
In the fall of 2004 I lost everything on my computer's hard drive, including thousands of mp3s, many of which were even acquired legally. I was left with the few programs and documents I had the foresight to back up and Animal Collective's Sung Tongs on CD. In a literal and figurative sense, at least until I could get to my physical collection at my parents' house, my identity as a music listener was rebuilt by the band.
It was weird music to listen to for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It's weird music for any time. But as a sophomore in college, it made sense, especially because I was taking Postmodern Literary Theory, and the quartet of Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist, and Deakin lined up with one of the discipline's central tenets: that which is most profound is often that which is indescribable. Words can't do us justice.
Jacques Lacan is probably the most important contributor to postmodern thought, and I read a lot of his wackiness. Jacques Derrida is important, but even his biggest fans can't explain some of his stuff. (Dude obfuscated his writing on purpose. It was part of the point.) Roland Barthes is important, but I haven't read his work and choose to ignore his influence.
Anyway, Lacan frequently returned to the concept of "erasing with a pen." What he means is that ideas are never as pure and clear when we speak them as they were in our heads. Words are certainly the best we've got to communicate with, but they're a necessary evil, a fecund compromise. The minute you condense your thoughts into speech or writing, you corrupt them to a certain degree. Sure, you need to voice your ideas so that other people can share them, but will those people ever experience them in the same way you did? No. We're trapped in the silent island of our mind, and even the best writer isn't telepathic. (It's no coincidence that Lacan didn't write any of his teachings down. They're translated from lectures.)
Because of this harsh reality, Lacan believed we are at our most intellectually advanced and untainted when we are infants, before we acquire language to contradict ourselves but after we are sentient. This period of time is referred to as the Mirror Stage, the time when we achieve self-awareness--literally the instant when you realize that the person looking at you in a mirror is, oddly enough, you. If people understood this stuff, the Kathleen Turner-Christopher Lloyd vehicle Baby Geniuses would have been a much bigger hit.
Lacan actually created an algebraic equation for our understanding of the phallus: something like (objet petit a - fear of castration)/--I think this is when I started drinking. No homo on devising a phallus equation.
Animal Collective, especially when I was writing papers about this stuff in my dorm room, sounded pre-verbal. Lacan would have loved them. No matter how rock writers attempt to describe them, any capsule review of an A.C. record feels inadequate. They're the fucking hipster jouissance.
Yes, their music obviously has influences, but it's impossible to pin those down. Because of the experimental components, The Incredible String Band gets name-checked. And the cut-and-paste aesthetic owes a bit to Mercury Rev. Because they've worked with Vashti Bunyan, people affix the ghastly "freak-folk" tag to them. A lot of that freak-folk stuff dovetails with psychedlia and they broke in early-aughts Brooklyn so there're some noise-rock elements and they're from Baltimore so we can add a bit of that region's dance traditions.
As a whole though, does "Peacebone" sound like anything else in the world? Their music is informed by the spaces in between each of those styles. It's a translation of the best parts of each into a dizzying mix of campfire tribalism. They sound like they can't see anyone else in the mirror, let alone themselves. This fatherless style is either a completely un-conscious happy accident, or Animal Collective is the most manipulative, self-aware group in the world. And maybe they're both. I warned you this would get postmodern.
I wouldn't deny that A.C. is an experimental outfit. They are ignoring trends and tradition in a stab at transcendence. But most people associate "experimentalism" with cold tactitians, and the music is also unavoidably emotional. Ambient drones and broken guitars and the more strident shouty parts of Strawberry Jam would suggest otherwise, but there's a lot about these records that is as warm and cozy as it is cathartic. The lyrics, especially when Panda Bear's writing matures on the latter albums, always focus on a return to innocence, a desire for simplicity. For instance, the refrain of Merriweather Post Pavillion's "My Girls" goes:
"I don't mean
To seem like I care about material things
Like your social status
I just want
Four walls and adobe slats for my girls"
You wouldn't guess that such reactionary and distinctly paternal lyrics would be represented by a bank of claustrophobic loops. And that's their most accessible song. Their unique qualities spring from this uneasy marriage of idea and execution. Animal Collective is enamored of the past, but they sound like the future.
They're still laughing about the phallus equation. I have a note here that says "Panda Bear and Avey Tare are Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood if both of those guys were Jonny Greenwood." I can't fit it in anywhere, so I'm sticking it here. No one is still reading by this point anyway.
That thesis is what grants them their transcendence and makes them one of the only truly transporting acts we have. As intimate as some of their lyrics are, A.C.'s music is grand and explorative, having no problem with expanding to twelve- or thirteen-minute suites or jamming all of the movements of such suites into a shorter song like "For Reverend Green." The music has no borders, and they transfer their own tangible rootlessness to the listener's figurative rootlessness.
Finally, since I'm assessing three albums at the same time here, it's worth discussing the evolution of the band. While that other A.C., accelerated culture, has changed music distribution fundamentally, not enough people ask how it changes music creation. In the six years these records cover (including Feels, a sensational 2005 effort that just missed the cut) a development from rambunctious duo perfecting their acoustic cackling and silky harmonies to a four-piece in complete control of a variety of electronic accoutrements and refined melodies. They've evolved the way all great bands have, but they've done it in a fraction of the time. In this decade, bands go through their artistic movements and periods at an accelerated rate too.
Animal Collective is of this time, but they aren't from it. And that sentence doesn't sound as good as it did in my head.