September 5th, 2012
To appreciate the newest development in the ever-twisting aural experience that is Animal Collective, You have to look past the overblown, psychedelic diarrhea that graces their latest album cover, and stare directly into the relentless force that comprises Centipede Hz.
In an interview with Pitchfork.com about the nature of Animal Collective’s 9th studio album, vocalist and songwriter Dave Portner (Avey Tare) commented, “Centipede Hz is up in space, on a spaceship — but it’s a lot more grounded in one location than off dreamily in the clouds.” While the band’s 8th and most widely acclaimed release Merriweather Post Pavilion ambitiously reached for the cosmos with its own hybrid flavor of experimentation and pop, Centipede Hz’s aspirations seem to be set on the ground beneath our feet. Having eschewed their decade-long commitment to ambient soundscapes, this album comes off a bit ham-fisted, in its forcefulness.
Centipede Hz opens strongly with the memorably punchy “Moonjock” and the exuberant “Today’s Supernatural.” Both tracks are stuffed with the band’s hallmark background tweaks, and plenty of oscillating bleeps and bloops. Between tracks, these details are accented by a sonic collage of radio identification blurbs and advertisement fragments, which adds much-needed ambiance to the frantic pace of the album. These microscopic production details may be comforting to many Animal Collective fans, but their purpose becomes deceptive at times. While the doubled vocals and churning organs of “Today’s Supernatural” hold the ecstatic chorus and verses together with sugary paste, their same employment in tracks like “Wide Eyed” and “Mercury Man” form a thin veneer of strangeness over unadventurous song structures. This criticism can be extended to a bulk of the lyrical content, which has always been a mainstay of the band’s appeal.
Starting with the wonderfully cryptic lyricism of albums like Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished (2000), and Sung Tongs (2004), it seemed that Avey Tare’s song-writing evolved with each coming album. Feels (2005) provided listeners with a bristling account of young love tinged with fantastical images of flesh canoes, wet clowns and purple gazes. In addition to countless other fascinating themes, the closing track of Strawberry Jam (2007), “Derrick,” was written to a beloved dog, and the majority of Merriweather Post Pavillion (2009) spoke of the anxieties and excitements of young fatherhood. Animal Collective’s back catalog puts Centipede Hz’s generalized themes of opened horizons and liberated consciousness to shame in terms of ingenuity and creativity. The booming and straightforward messages of widening eyes and letting go of inhibitions often become far too instructive to be enjoyable. Centipede induces the fear that Animal Collective has become exactly what the album cover depicts: a disconnected mélange of psychedelic stereotypes.
For instance, “Applesauce” contains a transparent message on the quirks of old age and fleeting youth. Its opening verse starts: “When I was young, I thought fruit was an infinite thing. I’d be sad to wake up and find all of my cherries are charred or they’re rotted to ruin.” The fruit metaphors continue with references to a “pink lady” and her “sweet, red delicious.” It’s scarily close to the cringe-worthy lyricism of Rush songs such as “The Trees.”
Aside from these criticisms, Centipede Hz proves to be a grower of an album. Upon second and third listen, tracks like “Monkey Riches” and the explosive chants of “Amanita” become verifiable earworms (or ear-centipedes). Though Centipede is technically their longest album, clocking in at 55 minutes 43 seconds, it doesn’t feel long by any means. Upon each listen there is a goldmine of previously unappreciated details. The album never leaves the listener bored or uninterested, as each track is jam-packed with foot-tapping beats, noodling keyboards and an endless plethora of noises. Many lesser bands would have caved under the pressure of creating a follow-up to an immensely popular album like Merriweather Post Pavilion, but Animal Collective responded by making something only vaguely reminiscent of their previous work (the closest approximation is the song “Slippi” from Here Comes the Indian (2003)), while remaining resolutely unclassifiable in a category of its own. It is difficult to embrace the congested nature of the album, but Centipede‘s internal logic should be praised for its determination and focus. The album feels exactly as the band described it: a grounded, live, and raw experience. Although it is their most conventional record to date, it’s still miles away from anything you’ve heard in the past. Animal Collective is a group that thrives on internal change and experimentation, and it is clear that this album is a stepping stone on a path to new territories. If you’re still not convinced, the fact that Avey Tare is screaming lyrics again should be enough to warrant a listen.