An unfortunate consequence of being part of a musical collective is that a musician’s solo or side projects will often be viewed as a derivative by-product of his or her parent band. Such is the case for groups like Wolf Parade, Broken Social Scene and The New Pornographers and their many musical offshoots.
The members of Animal Collective have fallen on both sides of this paradigm throughout the band’s 10-year existence. Panda Bear’s 2007 release Person Pitch, for instance, was universally praised for its innovative fusion of abstract electronic beats and barbershop harmonies, while Avey Tare’s 2007 collaboration with his wife on Pullhair Rubeye was met with mixed reviews and was stamped with the insultingly low rating of 1.0/10 by Pitchfork.
On Down There, Avey Tare debuts his first proper attempt at a solo album (he did a split 12” in 2003, but it can only be found in a physical format). The result is a hypnotic underwater journey of looped drum tracks and aquatic electronics.
The standout opener “Laughing Hieroglyphic” wastes no time establishing Avey Tare’s patented sound of a disjointed beat backed by a repetitive accordion, which allows him to burst into a cathartic contemplation about lions, worms and “getting lost in the big sound.”
“3 Umbrellas” also plays to many of Avey Tare’s strengths as an alternating organ and xylophone track builds and he evenly distributes his urgent vocals with tribal harmonies in the background. However, the song refuses to build or crescendo and no layers are added to the initial track to add texture. Instead, the song is cut off by one of the album’s most bothersome features: Random soundclips are inserted between tracks and sometimes even in the middle of songs. Basically, they have no real purpose.
The album proves to be a bit top-heavy as songs like “Cemeteries” and “Heather In The Hospital” suffer from a sleep-inducing down-tempo vibe and too many random voiceover injections.
“Oliver Twist” sports a thumping 808 kick beat and contains the best example of emotional vocal performance from Avey Tare, which is one of the album’s most intriguing components. Much of Animal Collective’s material contains inaudible vocals oftentimes shouted or screamed. On songs like “Peacebone” and “Grass” from past AnCo albums, very little emphasis is put on actual pure singing. Even though Avey Tare’s vocals are still distorted at times on “Oliver Twist,” the song’s most potent moments come when he belts out lines like, “It’s hard to sit myself down and just think about the ocean” and “Shouldn’t I be content with what I’ve got?” The fact that these songs contain some kind of tangible meaning outside of the pure abstraction within which Animal Collective normally operate signals a potential change in at least one of AnCo’s members’ entire approach toward making music, which has been previously hinted at on 2009’s Fall Be Kind EP.
However, songs like the haunting “Ghost of Books” prove that Avey Tare will probably never write songs exclusively about real-world, material things. He repeats, “So I ran away with my ghost, yeah,” over and over as the bassline and bubbly beats of the song fade out.
As the first full-length release by a member of AnCo since the astronomically adored Merriweather Post Pavilion, the measuring stick for an Animal Collective side project is at an all-time high. Avey Tare’s tribal ruminations on Down There are as accessible as Merriweather, but not as contagious. The hypnotic nature of most of Down There’s tracks is less appealing to the ear than the layered texturing that made Merriweather so successful. In the end, the songs on Down There lay the groundwork for compelling and transcendent tracks, but they never build to anything greater, leaving the listener teased but unsatisfied.