Animal Collective’s latest, Strawberry Jam, is somewhat of a behemoth. Not that it carries on unnecessarily or that it’s held down by too much going on at once, but it’s a massive piece of work five years in the making. Kind of.

Angela Cesere
They may look benign. But just wait till you see them with masks. (Courtesy of Domino)

Every time the New York troupe releases a new album it’s critically hailed as the group’s best (see the universally slobbering reviews of Sung Tongs and Feels). And to an extent, the praise is warranted. Animal Collective always seems to find new ways of reshaping its jammy, uncontrolled sound whether it be more structure, more noise or more drugs. But with each new album, the band abandons the steps it’s taken on the previous record, opting to use only snippets of earlier work instead of grounding the album in previous experiments.

Strawberry Jam is different in just that regard: The album plays as the summation of everything Animal Collective has done before it. A far cry from multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Panda Bear’s plodding, cuddly moniker, Animal Collective’s movements on this disc are fluid and slithering, rapid and violent. With the raw power of its early work and semi-controlled songwriting of its later material, Strawberry Jam finds a way to weave in and out of its own self-aware existence, striking at just the right moment with bombastic crescendos before settling backing into folky croons and light-hearted compositions. It simultaneously breaks the mold of everything they’ve done before while feeling remarkably familiar.

But what can be expected of a group that’s abandoned tradition and reason in its live shows, taking the stage without instruments in lieu of sequencers and mics alone? On Strawberry Jam, Animal Collective manages to shake even typical notions of songwriting. The debut single “Fireworks” is a masterpiece of percussive guitars, hazy samples and joyous melodies. On previous releases, the track would’ve devolved into an ecstatic, druggy folk freestyle, but here it holds its structure and proves there’s more to Animal Collective songwriting than a dimebag and strobe lights. Album opener “Peacebone” acts similarly as it pounds along an electronic daze and tribal beat. The track’s bouncing melody gives it a sing-a-long ambiance – something unthinkable on previous Animal Collective releases – until the group breaks into a full-on screamfest.

But to say that Animal Collective have gone all standard-songwriting on Strawberry Jam would be a gross misinterpretation. “#1” sounds like a Teletubby’s nightmare as the bubbly, raining keyboards are attacked by random shrieks and incomprehensible moans. In the same vein, “Cuckoo Cuckoo” sounds like the guys wrote a delicate piano ballad but brought in hyperactive toddlers to pound along on the drums.

The real issue with Strawberry Jam is that for all of its astounding tracks, it still feels restrained. Animal Collective sounds ready pounce but wholly unable to when the opportunity arises. Right when the album should really go for the jugular, it settles into a kind of monotonous complacency. The group has always banked heavily on loops and repetition and almost always succeeded with them, but on this latest release, they build so much into their songs that when they fall into these lackluster sequences the pause in the album’s movement is disappointing rather than intriguing.

Still, Strawberry Jam is the product of beautiful evolution. Perfectly blending everything they’ve done previously, Animal Collective artfully craft their most complete album to date. And though it seems that they have nowhere to go from here, that shouldn’t be of concern. They’re on top of their game and will no doubt find something new.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Animal Collective
Strawberry Jam
Domino

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