For about a half decade now, critics have been claiming that each new record by Animal Collective is the band’s most accessible. Though these claims ignored the little-heard 2000 debut, Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished, those claims were relatively correct. The chaotically layered noise and primal wild-man yelps (once oddly dubbed “freak folk”) have been gradually giving way to more approachable pop textures, warped as they still may be. Strawberry Jam is the first of the band’s six studio albums to entirely omit tracks of long ambling dirge among its fractured sing-alongs. Every song features prominent and decipherable lyrics, and most flirt with a traditional verse-chorus-verse. For once, the album’s purpose is not half in overwhelming the listener with euphoric and alien noise. Strawberry Jam can still be disorienting and thrilling, but we now have to take the members of Animal Collective for the words they’ve finally decided to let us hear. To paraphrase them slightly, I think this is the best they’ve ever played.
Opener “Peacebone” immediately highlights the sonic refinement. Avey Tare’s voice sits at the top of the mix with background harmonies never swallowing up precise diction; screams are used for emphasis rather than overkill. The music underneath (and throughout the album) is a choppy electronic loop, claimed in interviews to be the product of a healthy love for the organic repetitions of hip-hop producer J Dilla. At the onset, meaning remains obscured. The lyrics skip around from mythological images to domestic scenes, from nonsense wordplay to apparent bathtub-fart jokes. All of it sounds positively life-affirming, though. The following “Unsolved Mysteries” shoots its rays of understanding toward man-eating sharks and seeks to humanize Jack the Ripper. Has a band this fiercely experimental ever been so relentlessly positive? Panda Bear’s complaints about a lack of free time in “Chores” are still soaked in Brian Wilson sunshine. Only now, aided by sparse production (and a copy of Panda’s Person Pitch), are we able to discern individual personality in the band’s careening mash.
The album’s next two songs are perhaps the band’s best work to date. “For Reverend Green” is pretty far from the titular soul-man’s output, so whether it’s a genuine tribute or a nod to paranoid stoner’s slang is up for discussion. The lyrics detail modern unease, its “thousand wasted Brooklyners all depressed,” not sure what to do in the face of information overload. The music is smoother, tumbling along with sweet guitar textures that had been previously absent. The chorus returns to trademark screeching, but now as anthemic uplift. The primal screams affirm togetherness, even in the right “to feel inhuman.”
And “Fireworks” is lovelier still, its shimmering loops offsetting a romantic, even soulful vocal delivery. The words here are more isolated and lonely, but a quickly accelerating breakdown at the three-minute mark returns to communal strength. Nothing else on Strawberry Jam can match this dual high, but the quality remains consistent. From the digital-slot-machine cascades of “#1” through the Person Pitch clone “Derek,” there’s never been an Animal Collective album as coherent and pleasing for continual listening.
Rare is the album that’s able to expand an established band’s fan base while completely satisfying the cult of early flag planters, but Strawberry Jam has that chance. In context, Animal Collective’s previous albums seem somewhat incomplete. Sure they sound sporadically crazed and exciting, but to what end? Now that the band has crafted its childlike joy into complete sentences, wailing noise might never be enough again.