I only want a proper home: on Animal Collective and finding mine

Sunday, January 21, 2018 - 5:24pm

NOSELL

Domino Recording Company

 

Animal Collective recently played their 2004 album Sung Tongs in full for Pitchfork’s 21st birthday. As I watched a bootleg of the performance, I found myself falling back in time, a slave to the wanderings of my mind and its melancholic musings.

             “Sweet summer night, and I’m stripped to my sheets / Forehead is leaking, my AC

             squeaks / A voice from the clock says ‘You’re not gonna get tired’ / My bed is a pool

             and the walls are on fire”

I’m barely conscious, drifting in and out of sleep in the back of my family’s 2001 Honda Odyssey. We’re driving down to South Carolina for spring break, and the van’s air conditioning is shot. Ten more hours until we reach Folly Beach — population 2,600 — the quiet, seaside tourist destination my parents have selected for the final vacation before my high school graduation. Later this week, Sufjan Stevens will release Carrie and Lowell, and I will become obsessed. As listening for the ride down, though, I’ve asked my girlfriend what albums I should download. She recommends five or six, but the only one I remember is Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009).

One listen through and I was confused. After a few more admittedly drowsy attempts, I still couldn’t understand the appeal. The songs took too long to get anywhere. They were boring and had an oddly dark quality; Sometimes I still describe Animal Collective’s music as sounding evil. Nonetheless, I felt like I had to choose at least one song to say that I really liked. I settled on “Guys Eyes,” a tune with plenty of pleasant layers and harmonies that could only be inspired by the Beach Boys. Just under a year ago, I actually looked up the lyrics to the song, leaving me without a doubt that it is purely and proudly a song about masturbation. “So I used my mind / And I used my hand / It was what I want to do,” Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) slyly croons, allowing the more naïve listener plausible deniability.

            “I really want to show my girl that I want her / If I could purge all the urges         

             that I have

             and keep them for you / I really want to show my girl that I need her / I keep      

             it locked right now”

Around the same time, senior year of high school, I started reading Pitchfork. I didn’t know all that much about music — not that one has to or even should in order to enjoy it — and my favorite artists were Rise Against, Avicii and The Head and the Heart. I had joined Spotify late in 2012, the beginning of my sophomore year of high school, and revisiting my earliest playlists now is funny, if not wince-inducing. One in particular, entitled “nighttime,” bounces between Red Hot Chili Peppers, Iron & Wine, Ellie Goulding, City and Colour, OneRepublic and Neutral Milk Hotel, among various others. It’s a mix that I’m not sure I could stomach today, but one with songs that still hold a special place in my heart.

I hate to say that Pitchfork was the sole resource used in my quest to discover my taste — aimless listening on Pandora can only take you so far — for two reasons. First, there’s something inherently dangerous about idolizing one publication’s preferences over another’s — something I’ve been guilty of on more than one occasion. At the end of the day, an album review is only one writer’s opinion. Second, Pitchfork really wasn’t my only resource. Right around the same time I immersed myself in the publication, I realized that many of my friends were also beginning to discover how much music was really out there. We began to have conversations about Kendrick Lamar, Passion Pit, MGMT, Bon Iver… the list goes on.

             “If I don't think you know just what you're doing / You pretend to know exactly all

             the things you keep on moving”

Our listening didn’t go very deep, and there’s no way we really knew what we were talking about — I’m pretty sure I still generally don’t — but we were learning about music and about ourselves. The way that we listened changed, as did what listening meant. We were no longer beholden to our parents’ tastes. Instead, the music that we liked, or chose to like, became a sort of identifier. It was a way to align ourselves with certain beliefs, a particular aesthetic, people we thought were cool. Discovering a new artist felt personal and unique and good. Looking back, my first real romantic relationship (with the aforementioned girlfriend) was initially based almost entirely on music recommendations we’d send back and forth and the conversations that would come from them. She adored punk folk-rockers AJJ, and I showed her San Fermin, with their soaring brass melodies and oh so crisp vocals.

It sounds silly, almost fake, like I’m putting music on too tall a pedestal, but my earliest understandings of the world truly beyond my hometown of East Grand Rapids came from music. AJJ’s “American Tune” (“So if I see a penny on the ground / I leave it alone or fucking flip it / I’m a straight white male in America / I’ve got all the luck I need”) was my introduction to the concept of privilege. Perfume Genius, Blood Orange and Owen Pallett illustrated what it means to be gay in America while Kendrick and Vince Staples detailed their struggles as Black men, both realities that I still learn about every day. At the same time, Pedro The Lion’s discography led me to questions about my faith and about who and what people actually are.

             “People / Always got to wash them at their ends.”

***

Fast forward to just under a year after Folly Beach. I’m walking between Mason Hall and the UMMA, Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam playing through my headphones. It’s the beginning of a new semester — winter of my freshman year at U of M.

             “What’s pain? What’s sadness anyway? It’s not crying like a child /

              What’s graying? What’s aging anyway? It’s not growing in the wild”

I am scared.

The day I come back from holiday break, I hallucinate my friends’ voices outside my dorm room, thinking they had followed me back from home. Maybe they’re going to surprise me. Their breaks are all almost a week longer than mine, so it’s not unfathomable. After more than a minute of wondering whether that really was Casey, Tristen, Elliot and Corey whom I hear outside, I get up from my bed and check the hallway. No one. The idea was ridiculous anyway. I check again, just to be sure.

             “And an obsession with the past is like a dead fly / And just a few things are related

              to the ‘old times’ / Though we did believe in magic and we did die”

No, they haven’t planned a surprise visit. It really was too much to ask, but for some reason I’m still sad they aren’t there. I’ve just endured a full semester of friendlessness, save for my RA, and I can’t help but remember the faces of high school acquaintances when I told them the best friend I had made was someone whose job it was to make me feel welcome. The two weeks at home for holiday break were paradise, one that I loathed to relinquish. “Maybe I don’t belong here,” I think. “Maybe I should just go home.” Though a bit dramatic, the sentiment was real, especially when I was in the thick of it.

             “Our homes are all white / And we go dancing on a lake / And sleds will carry us

             tonight / And snowflakes will blow us on our way”

One of my friends whom I had hoped would visit (and actually has many times since) had long insisted that I listen to Animal Collective, and something about my loneliness prompted me to take his recommendation more seriously. January of freshman year, I began listening to Strawberry Jam. The evil, dark quality of the band’s work that had previously repulsed me was now alluring. Within hours I found myself completely enamored, practically seduced (for lack of a better word). Where Merriweather is lush, rolling, spacious, perfect for spring break, Strawberry Jam is harsh and less melodically direct. Opener “Peacebone” begins with chaotic noise and contains some of Dave Portner’s (aka Avey Tare) best screaming.

After a couple of weeks, I decided that the album was perfect, and one cut resonated especially well. “I only want the time / to do one thing that I like… / take a walk out in the light drizzle / at the end of the day / when there’s no one watching,” Lennox sings on “Chores.” After this forceful chorus, he fades into a soft, wordless duet with Lennox. At the time, walking was my number-one hobby, and something that I did for probably an hour or two every night.

            “Do you want to stroll down the financial street? / Our clothes might get soaked but

           the buildings sleep / And there’s no one pushing for a place / As we end up at     

           an easy pace”

If I couldn’t figure out how to make friends, I could at least take pride in my knowledge of the streets of Ann Arbor, of the storefronts and shortcuts, what I thought were the best kept secrets of the miserable college town — I’m not sure I can justify calling it a city — where I found myself ensnared. I didn’t have anyone to walk with, but as soon as I found someone, oh! the places we would go.

It’s cliché, but the music pulled me through that time. I invested myself in this band and felt rewarded. I dug deeper, into Feels, into Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished and into Campfire Songs. The music was weird and unlike any other I had ever heard. The further back I listened, the weirder it got and the more my fascination grew. Sounds I had never heard before opened up my mind to possibilities for creation, the likes of which I had never imagined. A song can be anything. It can carry a narrative, it can make no sense at all to anyone other than the writer, it doesn’t need to serve any purpose and it certainly isn’t even remotely beholden to the stifling laws of reality.

            “Feeling envy for the kid who’ll dance despite anything / I walk out in the        

            flowers  

            and feel better / If I could just leave my body for the night”

 

The group’s founding members, Portner and Lennox, released their first collaborative effort, Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished, in 2000 when they were just 21 and 22, respectively. The album is noisy, psychedelic and long-winded. Its hyper, unpredictable quality makes it a challenging listen, and if you don’t believe me, I invite you to listen to “Untitled.” See how long you last. While Spirit They’ve Gone is aggressive and difficult to parse, something about it feels attainable. The narrative structures (or sometimes complete lack thereof) are nuanced but not clearly defined, and the instrumentation is sparse: synthesizer, piano, Lennox’s lifelike percussion and the occasional acoustic guitar. This album was recorded largely in Portner’s parents’ home, and it’s not difficult to tell.

Portner and Lennox used the tools they had at hand in the limited space that was available to them to create something completely original. Though the album is rough around the edges, especially before it was professionally remastered, they pioneered a new sound. They aren’t snobbish about their music, and they certainly don’t put an excessive quantity of effort into maintaining a heavily curated image. They proved to me that I could make something. I just needed to start.

             “I’ll, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll, someday, someday… / Someday, someday, someday, someday… /

             Someday, someday, someday, someday…”

What was even more exciting was the way that these two 20-somethings were expressly against tradition, or at least against a blind acceptance of the path in front of them. Before the release of Sung Tongs in 2004, all but one of the now four band members decided to drop out of school in order to focus on music. A pretty hardy move, and Portner has recalled during interviews how he spent no insignificant amount of time collecting on unemployment, in and out of his parents’ house without a reliable income.

             “You don’t have to go to college”

I don’t believe that I will ever make anything as good as what Animal Collective has created, and dropping out of school to pursue music is the last thing I would consider. I have, however, since that fateful winter semester, redoubled my efforts into learning guitar. I try to write melodies whenever I can and pen down lyrics in my spare time, all of them bad. Nevertheless, I feel encouraged to continue whenever I listen, and not just in the realm of creating music itself.

When I first delved into Animal Collective’s prolific discography — Winter 2016 — it was with the knowledge that they would be releasing a new album, Painting With, in mid-February. Having been frustrated with the way I carried myself first semester, actively listening to Animal Collective was just one of many decisions I made leading into the new year. I was fed up with the sheer amount of time I’d wasted on Netflix, done with spending my Friday nights watching whatever was on Comedy Central. Something, I decided, needed to change.

             “We can get him started, yeah / Bad mind, let me put on good habits / Been       

             working

             to put on good habits / Sometimes I can’t find my good habits”

I began taking chances, reaching out to people I’d met briefly first semester and finding opportunities around campus. I remember being elated when I found someone who would go to the San Fermin show with me that January — someone I still regard today as one of my closest friends. I joined a few organizations, including The Daily, and though I was disappointed by the culture of organizations in general — so many students were just looking for résumé padding — I met beautiful, wonderful, optimistic and creative people.

My application to the Arts section of The Daily contained a review of Animal Collective’s Painting With. The trajectory that began with Merriweather in 2015 and continued through Strawberry Jam and the rest through 2016 finally found me among a group of people who had as much a desire to interact with the arts as I had. They can be pretentious (as can I), and I don’t always agree with them, but they’ve collectively provided me with a space where I can be creative, self-reflective and, above all, self-indulgent.

             “Now I think it’s alright to feel inhuman / Now I think that’s a riot / Now I think it’s

             alright we’ll sing together / Now I think that’s a riot”

It’s difficult for me to credit Animal Collective for my eventual adjustment to life at college, but the fact that my immersion in their music coincided with an exponential increase in my social confidence and understanding of myself as someone with a real personality, emotions, influence and responsibility is something I can neither shake nor deny. What is certain to me is that I would not be who I am today had I never listened to them. The degree to which I would be different is up for debate, and not something I want to explore on paper — on screen? — but still an interesting idea to entertain.

             “Am I really all the things that are outside of me? / Would I complete myself     

             without

             the things I like around?”

The details of this story, if one could call it that, are personal, but the context surrounding those details is hopefully somewhat universal. I’d like to think that most university students experience a time of extended loneliness, or at least a transient sense of not fitting in. Maybe my story will encourage those who, upon reading, find themselves in that position. Maybe a reader or two will be intrigued by my obsession with Animal Collective and give them a listen. And maybe, just maybe, those readers will find in Animal Collective what I’ve found, or will identify with my love for Animal Collective through whatever band or artist has narrated the recent years of their own lives. Whatever the case may be, dear reader, I hope you’ve found something human here.

             “Oh there will be time to fish fry, for letters by, yours truly / Yours truly”