House music gets pretty short shrift in the indie-rock community. It is, after all, a direct descendant of that other much-maligned genre, disco. Critics will dress it up in a hipper term (“electronic music,” “electronica”), but there’s little doubt that house music holds considerable sway over Merriweather Post Pavilion, the ninth album from Animal Collective. It’s there in the juddering bass thuds of “In the Flowers,” and the Frankie Knuckles-style “My Girls” (which, quite naturally, bore the working title “House”), and on to the thievery of a few Derrick May beats on closing track “Brother Sport.”
Of course, this being an Animal Collective album, there are plenty of other influences at work. “Brother Sport” manages to weld May’s borrowed beats onto a warped lock-groove and propulsive Brazilian rhythms, creating a track that sounds like no one other than Animal Collective. Like the band’s other records, Merriweather Post Pavilion is a considerable progression from the last. Dave Portner’s (a.k.a. Avey Tare) guitar is extremely muted this time around, and second guitarist Josh Dibb (a.k.a. Deakin) is nowhere to be seen. In their place come sample-heavy grooves and a few down-tempo ballads, which have been extensively road-tested during Dibb’s hiatus from the band.
The members of Animal Collective have retained the fearless sense of sonic exploration they grasped from the fertile Brooklyn scene that produced fellow forward-thinkers Gang Gang Dance and Black Dice. This constant desire to distort and blur their own songwriting template, to produce songs with wild time structures (“Lion in a Coma”) and filled with noise of indeterminate origin (the sound of machinery screaming halfway through “In the Flowers”) will make us return to Merriweather Post Pavilion time and time again.
Lyrics have never been a strong point for the band, and so it remains here. It’s often difficult to hear what Portner or fellow songwriter Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear) is singing, and it’s likely intentional. The words that do creep through range from the inspired to the insipid, and often work as just another texture added to the music. At other times, they’re a perfect counterpoint to the melodies, such as the “Will it be just like they’re dreaming” line on “Also Frightened.”
It’s likely that Animal Collective see lyrics as being no more or less important than a huge bass hit or a sample of a bee trapped in a cup. You don’t sing along to Animal Collective, you submerse yourself in the overall sound. That said, there are two huge pop hits here, in the form of the aforementioned “My Girls” and the breezy “Summertime Clothes.” The latter builds on the stuttering rhythms of Strawberry Jam’s “For Reverend Green” and takes them into a place of pure euphoria.
Only Animal Collective could follow such a track with the disjointed Panda Bear jam “Daily Routine,” which again bears a distinctly houselike piano sound, and the watery “Bluish,” which sounds like it was recorded after the band plunged into Dr. Edward Jessup’s sensory-deprivation tank in Altered States. “Guys Eyes” is one of the standout tracks on the record, with the lyrics piling up on top of each other as the song progresses, generating an irresistible feeling of tipsy chaos.
There’s respite from such dense layering in the album’s penultimate track, “No More Runnin.” Its sparse beats and gentle vocals feel like the first welcome gulp of air after being submerged underwater for too long. Merriweather Post Pavilion ends with the gigantic rush of “Brother Sport,” with its house-y piano stabs, acidic synths and clattering beats all combining to create utter elation. Like the rest of the album, it’s not a retro retread, more like a group bastardizing sounds they’ve borrowed from the past in order to construct their own vision of how a 21st century band should sound.
This album will be stretched and frayed at the seams as it undergoes rigorous analysis. But it can make you smile, and feel sad, and like you want to dance, often all at the same time. And that’s because Animal Collective operate in the same way all the best pop bands do: by wanting to move your feet and your heart. They’re a precious group, and one that will be looked back on with considerable reverence. Has the album of 2009 been unleashed in January? I can’t see anything else coming near it.