BY MATT EMERY
Daily Arts Writer
Published January 11, 2009
Merriweather Post Pavilion
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4.5 out of 5 Stars
Animal Collective has never been transparent. Leaders Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s songs are caked in layers of technical production with many of their lyrics shrouded and garbled, as if they were singing in an aquarium. The sporadic yet calculated sounds and production have always trumped Animal Collective's characteristically indecipherable lyrics.
Similar to their lyrics, Tare and Bear’s lives rest in relative secrecy. They don’t do many interviews. They don’t blog constantly. Even press photos are scarce. All they really have speaking for them is their music, and it has certainly helped their legendary status grow exponentially with each new, complex album they offer.
With Merriweather Post Pavilion, two things are now poignantly clear: Panda and Avey are no longer complete mystery men and Animal Collective’s growing fan base will continue to develop with the group’s most accessible, sonically reserved effort yet. There are no more songs that might not even be songs, and fewer obtrusive squeals and wandering sounds. Also, someone told Avey he didn’t need to scream anymore, which is nice.
Still, from the first warbles of opening track “In the Flowers,” it’s painfully clear that Animal Collective isn’t looking for absolute clarity this time around. But Merriweather is an astoundingly crisp, buttery effort that not only rounds out a lot of the blunt edges from the band's first few albums, but also ups the lyrical deftness of 2007's Strawberry Jam. All of these elements formulate what is sure to be one of the most technically and vocally precise albums of 2009.
Merriweather is a decidedly adult album. Despite the thinly veiled drug references (including the lyrics “If I could only leave my body for the night” on “In the Flowers” and the cross between an optical illusion and a "Magic Eye" book that is the album cover), Panda and Tare are growing up. Panda feels domestic on “My Girls,” singing, “Is it much to admit I need / a solid soul and the blood I bleed / With a little girl, and by my spouse / I only want a proper house.” On “Daily Routine,” the production — full of chirps and elongated vocal patterns — mimics the daily routine of protecting a child from gas fumes and stopping at traffic signals before the vocals blend into stretched and desolate shutters. The songs pack a bit of raw emotion that didn’t seem possible on Animal Collective's previous albums, especially underneath the complex drum patterns of Sung Tongs and Tare's old penchant for screaming.
For all its wispy hits and swirling melodies about leaves and flowers, Merriweather pushes a more dance-oriented Animal Collective, though with more than a touch of hippie musical elements. The grinding and mechanical “Summertime Clothes” is scrubbed clean by dueling and jovial chimes from both Tare and Bear about the healing powers of the sun. But the undercurrents of tension and fear create a fitting, grounded quality, which can be seen when Tare sings, “Walking around in our summertime clothes / Know where to go when our bodies go.”
True to form, Animal Collective still enjoys embracing its tribal and jungle influences. “Lion in a Coma” skips along injected with a didgeridoo-like beat and the sound of buzzing insects, and “Guys Eyes” sounds like it was recorded in a swamp where Tare and Bear's vocals compete for a dose of fresh air. The subtle touches to songs like these and the delicate lyrics of love-song “Bluish” show just why Animal Collective has such a cult following: No one else can make songs so astonishingly complex.
“Brother Sport” feels like a dance song, even though it may not be, with the lyrics “Open up your, open up your, open up your throat, and let them go” falling into video game blips and bloops, complimented by a siren-like squalor. It’s an outcast on the album, falling into the final slot, and it might be the closest the group has to clinging to its alienating self of old. But underneath it all are the complex connections of vocals and the computer splashes that should never go together so well.
What really pulls “Brother Sport” into Merriweather Post Pavilion is the culmination of all the things that have worked so well for Animal Collective, not just on the album, but for the past decade. It’s a bit of an anomaly after all the flowing tracks, but Merriweather wouldn’t be the same without “Brother Sport.” It’s a peppy, dance-and-chant-oriented reminder of the group’s eclectic tendencies that shows that even on top of such an emotionally raw disc, Animal Collective really has found its stride and picked its best elements to craft a startlingly precise album.