Saturday, January 31, 2009

Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion

The process of reviewing albums is a sordid musical meta-analysis. I know this description is somewhat of a mouthful—and somewhat pretentious—but then again, so are most record reviews. To that point, the introductory paragraphs often say very little about the actual content and sound of the album in question. Instead, the critic usually spawns a bombastic preamble that parades his knowledge of the musical frou-frou, like back-stories, geographies, hype, shticks, stage names, gimmicks, concept art and perhaps musical forefathers. If the critic gets around to mentioning musical influences, and the band is of an indie rock persuasion, he will of course mention whether or not the album is the Pet Sounds of the Aughts. And for all of this, Merriweather Post Pavilion, the ninth effort from Brooklyn-based Animal Collective, is the critics’ darling. They’re pontificating about the album, yes. But strangely, they actually seem to be enjoying the album—and enjoying it with abandon. With charming rashness, they’re already saying it’s the album of 2009. And I agree.

It’s true. MPP lends itself perfectly to the over-intellectualizing that inflates and aggrandizes music critics’ professions. Perhaps it’s Animal Collective’s elusion of current musical genres that allows critics to show off their knowledge of categories and subsequent sub-categories. Sure, the vocal harmonies of Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) and Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare) on MPP sound hauntingly similar to Brian Wilson’s and the rest of the Beach Boys on their pop opus, Pet Sounds; but it’s inadequate when classifying the strange beast that is Animal Collective into its appropriate genus and species. And they adore that. So, they might mention how Animal Collective’s style flits about freak folk, electronica, drone, ambient, jamband, tribal, soul, avant-garde, surf, gospel, dance, minimalism and pop all at once. Yet Animal Collective is not the sum of these parts, reviewers have noted; they are gestaltists. They are, in fact, creating a new sound.

Strangely, this showy wordsmithery that usually is tainted with pompousness is instead teeming with wonder, amazement and glee. At times the critics just seem plain giddy. It’s as if they were teenagers again and their older sisters just handed them Sgt. Pepper’s or Tommy for the first time. It seems like they’ve returned to listening to the music just for the love of it. I mean, it certainly says something that these professional musical elitists are declaring MPP to be the album of 2009 in the middle of its first month. Even though some of the critics are aware of their over-excitement, they still proceed with their praise. In his review of MPP, Tom Whalen of No Ripcord almost acts if he is betraying his musical rep by giving it glowing accolades along with everybody else:
MPP will surely hold steady as one of 2009's touchstones, one whose exclusion from lists of year-end-bests would represent a more profound gesture than its inclusion. Yet here I am, haplessly enveloped into the nebulous realm of "universal acclaim," kicking my pebble of praise at the foot of the imminent mountain…
And at this point, eleven days after its official release, Animal Collective does not need to go the mountain of “universal acclaim,” for reviewers are building one at its feet, pebble by pebble. I have counted and skimmed hundred of reviews: most of them are saying that the album is currently unparalleled. Naturally, however, there are dissenters who do not share the same unabashed adoration. These skeptics seem to fall into two camps: those who plainly do not like the album for its sometimes cacophonous excesses and those who to not like the album because they pine for the dissonant, unique band that Animal Collective once was. Now, I can't really address the former group: if a person doesn't like an album, she simply doesn't like an album. However, I can speak to the latter group. So here it goes: Come on. It's ridiculous to dislike an album simply because it is somewhat poppy and more accessible to a larger audience. Buck up.

For me—and this is where I conclude my drawn-out introduction about the critics' response and get on with it—pop is the necessary component to this album's brilliance. It is the newest element to their sonic palate. Yet, I wouldn't call their new sound "pop," per se, just like I wouldn't unambiguously dub their past efforts freak-folk or dance. Instead, pop is the specter that haunts MPP. Some might say that the structure of the two-minute pop song limits the potential of the whirs, drones and yawps of their avant-garde foundation. But no. I believe their sound comes to fruition with its defined structure. Granted, the album is markedly different from their back catalogue, such as the unbridled, guitar-driven experiment, Feels. And, it is certainly a departure from Brian Weitz's (aka Geologist) amelodic, textured ambience that drove Sung Tongs. They will never again create another Strawberry Jam or Here Comes the Indian or any of the other albums because frankly, they themselves have changed and matured. They have wives. They have families. And they sing about it. Just listen to the lyrics of the stand alone single, if there were to be one, "My Girls":

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

I don't care for fancy things
Or to take part in a precious race
And children cry for the one who has
A real big heart and a father's grace

I don't mean to seem like I care about material things like a social status
I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls


You can hear Noah Lennox's filial pride when he sings those fun, simple hooks in a song that about settling down. But, just because he uses melodic pop hooks, does not mean the music isn't expansive, or authentic. Similarly, just because he wants a home for his wife and child, doesn't mean he's past his creative prime. Is it so wrong to want a house? Is it so bad to make popular, accessible music? I would hope not.

Settling down and family, then, are the noble themes that ring throughout the entire album. And although "My Girls" will probably be the track that people shout out at shows, there are multiple songs that others might call their favorite that share its sentiment. On "Brother Sport," Noah lends some advice to his depressed sibling: "Open up your, open up your/Open up your throat/And let the all of that time/All of that time, all of that time go". He might be saying," sing, dammit. Don't let your mind get muddled by your circular thoughts and what dad said. Live your life." On the opener, "In the Flowers," Dave sings of his wishes to be home with his wife instead of touring in some European countryside, watching some kid euphorically dance about. On "Summertime Clothes," they sing of the simple, cathartic desire to "walk around with you." Taken without context, these lyrics and sentiments might seem somewhat boring and naive. But the marriage between these emotions and the explosive sound environment of their talent instead conveys wisdom and a sense that they've weathered a lot. It's is if they're saying, it's OK to want to go home; it's OK to rely on your family.

Perhaps I'm just projecting all of my current emotions onto the music critics' reviews. Perhaps I'm just identifying with a small sliver of the MPP's intended theme, as well. Perhaps not. Regardless, I enjoyed reading the responses to the album for the unbridled praise and excitement. It's a good feeling to like music without reservation, addendum, or caveat. It's good that I haven't followed Animal Collective since the beginning. It gives me freedom to enjoy their music. It's as if this album boxed me in the ears and shouted: "You love listening to music. That doesn't make you more unique or better than other people. Remember when you didn't care how popular a band was? Remember when you didn't care if other people from your town knew about a band first? This is an awesome album... and that's it. Go ahead, dance in your car to it. Go ahead, tell your friends how much you like the album. Go ahead, tell your acquaintances to go out and buy it. It's just music. It's brilliant, but it's just music." So, based on the fact that Merriweather Post Pavilion reminded me of my love of music upon the first listen and that it seems to have affected many other music elitists the same way, I would say that it is the best album of 2009. And without legitimate proof or backing, I would say it's the best album of the decade.


42 comments:

ga said...

That was long, huh? I even read the entire thing!

Bill Orton said...

you've always been my biggest fan, greg. you're the best.

David said...

I'm trying to get a hold of "House and Philosophy." Does anyone have an extra copy?

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