Animal Collective albums tend to be growers—a bit difficult to approach at first, sometimes even outright baffling, but extremely rewarding on repeated listens. But now that I’ve had a few weeks to settle into their new (and widely-acclaimed) record Merriweather Post Pavilion, I have to admit that it hasn’t yet wowed me. I’m not saying it’s bad—far from it—but in recent years, Animal Collective has set the bar so high that anything less than a flat-out great record comes as a disappointment.
I find their previous full-length, Strawberry Jam, so deeply compelling that, even after dozens and dozens of listens, it continues to arrest my attention completely every time I hear it. Merriweather is sonically adventurous and sometimes quite beautiful, but to my ear it lacks the rough-edged, emotionally-rich tension between avant-strangeness and pop sweetness that makes Strawberry Jam so wonderful. Or, put another way: Merriweather Post Pavilion indulges more frequently in pleasantness and less frequently in moments when a howl or a shout cuts through the tunefulness (as in the magnificent “For Reverend Green”) or when a haunting (but also pretty) melody rises up surprisingly from from a fractured and wildly unconventional arrangement (as in “Cuckoo Cuckoo”). Instead, Merriweather Post Pavilion presents gentle melodies awash in squishy, burbling electronics. It’s a worthy record—hummable, and full of marvelous, inventive sounds. But I don’t find it gripping or involving. It has never once made me want to drop everything else just to listen to it.
It’s not that Merriweather doesn’t have its moments: “Guys Eyes” uses a stuttering rhythm and Beach Boys harmonies (always a potent weapon in the Animal Collective musical arsenal) to set up a dizzying climax that then sails just as smoothly back into a verse; and “Lion in a Coma” catapults from a gentle start into grand sonic spaces. But even the latter track throws me sometimes, in part because of the dumb pun in its title, and also because of its extensive use of a didgeridoo—which sounds great, anchoring the tune with a rich and satisfying drone, but at the same time seems an over-obvious move for the band that is responsible for having made tribal percussion and hippie-ish mysticism suddenly very popular in indie rock. Perhaps it’s a willful provocation aimed at critics and fans who would like to box their music into narrow categories, a nervy move meant to demonstrate that they’re not in the least bit worried about the small-minded “freak folk” label that continues to be applied to them despite all sonic indications to the contrary. Even so, it’s distracting.
In any case: I stand by my previous statement that Animal Collective is one of the best bands around these days, and just about the only one in indie rock that actually seems important. But I’m just not into Merriweather Post Pavilion.