For the first three minutes of “Graze,” the first song on Fall Be Kind, the first Animal Collective release since Merriweather Post Pavilion, you think you’re in for a run-of-the-mill follow-up EP, one destined to be packaged with the preceding LP someday. Three minutes in, however, Geologist gets tropical, the vocal harmonies kick in, and Avery Tare and Panda Bear start going crazy with keyboards and guitars. Suddenly, there’s a lot more going on to Fall Be Kind than you first thought.
That kind of mid-song change of course and defiance of expectations is the kind of thing Animal Collective has mastered over the past decade. One of the reasons Merriweather was such a success was that it built on those developments without having to resort to trickery.
Fall Be Kind is something of a throwback to the band’s Sung Tongs/Feels era, where the payoffs were the result of long stretches of atmospherics. It’s a lot more mature than those albums were — everyone in the band is older and better tuned in to their place in pop music — but the same kind of mitigated expectations run rampant.
“Graze,” without a doubt the highlight of Fall Be Kind, sounds like a three-part pop-song suite with the third part cut off. If “Bohemian Rhapsody” never kicked into hard rock, or if “Paranoid Android” stopped four minutes in, would they be the same song? They probably wouldn’t be nearly as popular, but they’d still get art schoolers and musicologists a hell of a lot more interested in what’s next.
Yet, the payoff you wait for over Fall Be Kind‘s 28 minutes never comes. After one listen, you instantly crave more. The resulting repeatedly listens inevitably add a lot of sonic touches to your consciousness. This is why Animal Collective goes directly to the root of artistic obsession, and the fact that they can wholly pull off in such short order what it used to take a full album to accomplish is a rather remarkable sign of precision and maturity. Yet no matter how many layers you can unravel with Fall Be Kind (and you can rip through many in rapid succession), you never get the payoff you craved on first listen.
The major criticism of Animal Collective has been the band’s proclivity to bewilder listeners more than give them the pop songs they want. It’s difficult to criticize Merriweather on those terms, but it applies a lot more to Fall Be Kind. What’s worse, that bewilderment prevents Fall Be Kind from being what the best Animal Collective releases always are: fun.
Midway through closer “I Think I Can,” the lyrical repetition makes you think something huge is going to close the album. But yet again, you’ve been had, as the song fades away nondescriptly. Thus, by the end of Fall Be Kind, you are completely drained, as drained as any five-song EP could ever leave you. The reward for your diligence never comes.
It took a decade of delicious bait for the members of Animal Collective to draw us in hook, line, and sinker. It remains to be seen whether they can do anything but repeat the same fishing trip.