Animal Collective has always been a pop group. In the past the band focused its talent for crafting extremely catchy songs through different lenses that may have obscured this particular aspect of the music. On Here Comes the Indian it was tribal noise-rock, with Sung Tongs it was warped psychedelic folk. Feels saw Animal Collective channel 4AD groups such as The Cocteau Twins and early Lush before settling in to the decidedly more aggressive electronic splatter of Strawberry Jam. Those listeners that have been following the group’s trajectory up to this point should have been expecting that at some point the guard would be dropped and an unselfconscious stab at total pop would be made. Thus we get Merriweather Post Pavilion, which is not only the jewel in Animal Collective’s crown but most certainly a stand alone album that will come to define at least one faction of the American underground this decade. Holding it up to the light and checking for flaws, I could find none. The album as a whole is a model of perfection from start to finish in a time when other groups are content to crank out a handful of singles alongside stale filler.
Opening track “In the Flowers” is exemplary of several things Animal Collective has been growing into on previous releases. It begins with swirling sound effects that evoke an acidic take on classic Walt Disney movie soundtracks before Avey Tare leads the song into a section of bass heavy rave and pulsing crescendo with the line “if I could just leave my body for a night.” It’s jaw-droppingly effective. You might think that it couldn’t possibly get better after this but the band follows it with “My Girls,” a song that borrows elements from AC member Panda Bear’s 2007 solo album Person Pitch and marries repetition to a night time dance groove complete with whooping vocals and handclaps. The song appears to be concerned with providing “four walls and adobe slabs” for Panda’s wife and young daughter. A simple concept to be sure but here Animal Collective transform the mundane into the transcendent.
Beyond instrumentation, Merriweather is a marked advancement for the group in the realm of vocal dynamics, as well. Many listeners noted that, on Strawberry Jam, Avey Tare had emerged as somewhat of a frontman-figure for the group – this record offers balance. Avey is still the most prominent, if only sometimes because of how flamboyant his voice really is, but Panda’s right there with him for many of the tracks, offering a comforting, gauzy counterpart to Avey’s punch, which is best represented by the duo’s play on “Summertime Clothes.”
The back-to-back punch of “Daily Routine” and “Bluish” might be the single best pairing of complimentary songs in the Animal Collective catalog. The former is all Panda Bear accompanied by what sounds like messy keyboards at first that miraculously tighten their focus when he starts singing. “Bluish,” like “Summertime Clothes” shows Panda and Avey teaming up with Avey taking the verses only to have the chorus fleshed out by Panda’s beautiful back-up vocals.
It’s often difficult to be able to focus on words even if particular phrases do jut out, what with the kraut-rock and minimalism-inspired repetitiveness, soundscapes cycling ceaselessly, and aural trickery mimicking the dreamlike/distracting artwork. No worries, since the end result is as fantastic a package as can be desired; so many gorgeous layers and loops transform any potential ills into musical beauty-marks. Merriweather Post Pavilion isn’t only the most progressive Collective project, it’s the absolute largest too with as much sound crammed into one space as previous albums combined. When, around the two-and-a-half minute mark, “In the Flowers” positively explodes, it’s like watching a (pop) star being born. Ambition’s never sounded prettier.
The comedown to all of this kaleidoscopic euphoria appears near the end of the album as “No More Runnin’” before “Brothersport” kicks things back into gear, effectively ending Merriweather Post Pavilion on a ridiculously high note. The former is barely threaded together with tinkling piano while the latter is a near seven minute jam that weaves pulsing Technicolor melodies around Panda Bear’s voice. There are far too many interlocking parts to possibly fully digest it upon first inspection. In fact, this aspect of the song is a perfect summation for the album as a whole. If all of this raving has you thinking that this is album of the year material then you’d be right. What’s more important is that Merriweather Post Pavilion is not just one of the finest things you’re going to hear in 2009 but that it should sit well next to albums like Kid A on lists of the best music made in our time.
— Joe Davenport & Jacob Price