You’ve got to give Animal Collective this: the group doesn’t sit still. Though certainly the band has an approach that links all its myriad albums and EPs, no two really sound alike. Every time out, Animal Collective wipes the slate clean and starts anew to some extent. There’s carry over, sure, but mostly each album is a new musical tangent. This constant shift is due, in some ways, to the singular inspirations that launch them into each album. Merriweather Post Pavilion, the band’s last full album, was made to fill the huge space of that titular concert venue in Maryland. Their new (and tenth) album, Centipede Hz has a quite different, but no less identifiable inspiration.
We’ve got two nods to the past to deal with around Centipede Hz. For one, we have the return of member Deakin, and the band going back to a four piece. On top of that, the band claims inspiration for the album came from staticky station announcements and commercials on the radio they remember from their youth. That feeling of being between songs, or between stations, or just generally between, coats and obscures much of what’s on the new record to questionable effect. Opener “Moonjock” is drenched in static at first and never quite shakes it over its skittering, tensed-up beat. It’s fitting here since the song recounts long car trips and the songs that get you through them, though in other spots it doesn’t quite fit.
That first song introduces us to quite a few things that run through Centipede Hz. For one, there’s travel, which happens all over here. So does nostalgia, and so does that static and sonic confusion. “Today’s Supernatural” is awash in electronic swirls that approximate radio waves floating in the atmosphere. The vocals on “Rosie Oh” get drowned in echo, as if they’re a fading transmission from some distant satellite. “Wide Eyed” devolves into broken-record repetition of found snippets of the song, “Monkey Riches” fades out on computerized feedback, and so on.
This idea of static, or incomplete transmissions, feels more or less prescriptive and not nearly as fruitful as it should. In the end, like a bad radio signal, it obscures you from what you really want to hear, which is the songs. The good news is that, for the most part, it gets out of the way for much of the record, but as a frame for sound here it doesn’t work. A much more fruitful dip into the past finds the band dealing more in organic instrumentation than they have recently. Panda Bear uses the drum kit, Geologist knocks out some keyboard riffs rather than programming something in. There’s nice guitar work buring in the mix, some of it lap steel provided by Beachwood Sparks member Dave Scher.
It’s those more physical elements, the “real” stuff buring under the uneven effect of the noise, that make for the most interest parts Centipede Hz. In the same way the best parts of MPP had to fight through the monolithic shimmering patina of that album’s vibe, here they fight through some unnecessarily crackling. When it does, it can prove pretty damn interesting. With live instruments they get back to messing with different rhythms, and the Deakin-sung “Wide Eyed” is a blippy yet rumbling gem. Deakin’s voice feels full and soulful here — he’s never sung a tune for the band before — and his honest, clear worries and doubts ring true from a band that often has time making sense lyrically. Similarly, “New Town Burnout” is a moodier yet just as affecting wish to hide, to get back to the familiar. In an album full of travel — see the hiking on “Amanita”, leaving home on “Rosie Oh”, etc. — the fatigue in this song is a perfect contrast to the wanderlust that runs rampant. It also runs, curiously, alongside many childhood memories, and though a bit too verbose, “Applesauce” makes a clear distinction between childhood where you’re sure nothing, not even fruit, will die, to the present where anything could end.
Now, these are the moments of clarity, and around them there are plenty of sonic and — as has always plagued the band, lyrical confusion. Who knows what a “bionic hee haw” is or what it means to be a “cerebral spouse”, but often the words here get dragged into vague mysticism and images that seem to intentionally circumvent any point. They seem to aim for subtlety and hit on nonsensical. Around them, the music itself walks a fine line between meaningful structure and needless repetition. Some songs build verses and choruses and bridges and the like on clear structures — see “Wild Eyed,” “New Town Burnout,” and “Today’s Supernatural.” Much of the record, like MPP before it, simple builds different parts and repeats them in shifting cycles. As a result, you don’t get songs so much as you get chunks of sound. There’s no real melody to, say, “Father Time”, it just relies on coming back to the shouted repetition of the phrase “a long time ago.”
Like the subjects of these songs, the music itself wanders. And while it often sounds pleasant, sometimes surprising, it also never feels like it gets anywhere. Melodies resolve, and much of this doesn’t. That said, there’s a lot more charm to this set than universally lauded but ultimately lukewarm set that was Merriweather Post Pavilion. Here Animal Collective sounds like four guys, like a band, playing together, discovering sounds, making some of them sound downright joyful. The problem is that aesthetic and studio tinkering gets in the way, and since there’s more focus on the radio static vibe than there are on meshing the parts of these songs with more memorable hooks, Centipede Hz falls short of being the album it could be.
Inspiration may get you started, but sometimes the thing that gets you into the record should fall away. First thought isn’t always best thought, and for all the swirls of squall around these songs and all the interesting atmosphere they could bring to the table, you may find yourself wishing Animal Collective would just twist the dial a bit, just tune in and aim for clarity, because some of these songs deserve a clear transmission.