Dave Portner, aka Avey Tare, is ready to slow things the fuck down, and it’s hard to blame him. It seems like he and his bandmates in Animal Collective have been whirling dervishes for the last 10 years – first writing, touring, and recording with creative restlessness, and then later writing, recording, and touring like a traditional careerist band – until eventually they became the newest token avant-garde band okay for the masses to love, folding mainstream college partiers and NPR-listening yuppies into the circle of underground fanboys, primal spazzes, and hipster trendspotters. All the attention alone would be enough to produce withdrawal for the once low profile and arty Portner, but in the time period between releasing Merriweather Post Pavilion and the recording of his first proper solo album Down There he also weathered a dissolved marriage, a seriously ill sibling, and a death in the family. What comes out on record is both a return to form and a bit of a denial of form.
The return to form here is Portner’s welcome return to weirdness. After the foreground-mixed vocals of Strawberry Jam and the more subdued singing on Merriweather Post Pavilion –which seemed to be the place where democracy in Animal Collective watered down the original idea at Portner’s expense – here he brings back the unhinged yelping, the extreme pitchshifting, and the word drunk auctioneer stylings on which his reputation was built. The overall sound is highly electronic and more dubby than anything, with lots of subbass throb, repetitive synth, and wet underwater sonic treatments, especially on the vocals. Guitar here is in fairly short supply, and the arrangements result in slippery, under-the-radar melodies. The whole affair slinks by at a fairly even level, with few highs or lows.
The content here strives to be fairly bleak when you can make it out at all. “Laughing Hieroglyphic” leads the album off with a repeating harmonium riff and a stuttering rhythm, and, as he searches for explanations, shoulders some blame, and howls that the next time “when I get fucked up I’ll do the best to make myself not fucked up again”, it just might be Portner’s “Always on My Mind”. “Heather In the Hospital” tenderly expresses the helplessness of dealing with the severe illness of a loved one, and the perspective which that surrender provides. “Cemeteries” is a beautiful, calm meditation on being dead. These more focused songs favor the soul-searching darkness which it feels like this album is struggling toward, but the cohesion is undercut by the exuberance of tracks like the buoyantly carnivalesque “3 Umbrellas” and the smooth sensuality of low-key banger “Oliver Twist”. Down There nicely explores a number of directions, but doesn’t come together in a way that makes sense. The crocodile imagery seems to attempt to tie the disparate threads together – with some interstitial vocals pitchshifted way down to presumably represent the crocodile as he provides a guided tour through the murky waters on a raft, Charon-Style – but in the end lions seem to get way more lip service than crocodiles.
While it feels great to have some undiluted Avey Tare material, he seems a little creatively restless here. Portner made Animal Collective an essential band with his wild songwriting style which resembled the engineering of rollercoasters. A few of these tracks (“Ghost of Books” and “Heads Hammock”) simply lumber along, killing the momentum in the middle of the album with song structures more reliant on simple addition and subtraction of elements than wild twists and turns. That it all still sounds pretty cool is testament to Portner’s great musical ear, but a less scattered direction and more adventurous songwriting would probably be enough to put his next solo work over the top.