ANIMAL COLLECTIVE MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION, 2009, Domino Recording Co., Ltd.
I’ve been dreading this review for days. How else to feel about an album you can’t stop listening to, can’t stop reflecting on, can’t stop talking about for four weeks and as many states (we just got back from some road trips)? So I’ll get right to the point: Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion is a masterpiece, right up there with Hail To the Thief as album of the decade, perhaps the first indispensable classic of this millennium. Our generation is loath to certify anything, so afraid of being called into question, but forget the self-doubt. We have a new President in the White House, and now we have a genuine anthem (“My Girls”) to go with him. This is something you know instantly in your gut, from the first minute you hear the first song, “In the Flowers,” and it leaves you enlivened and enraptured well after the closer “Brothersport” (a bigger, richer cousin to Strawberry Jam’s “Derek” (for which I have an obvious soft spot, even though it’s about the family dog)) has ended.
After eight doggedly idiosyncratic, evolving studio releases, it might be fair to say that Animal Collective is America’s answer to Radiohead—a homegrown quartet (now trio) that reaps praise and fans in equal measure playing exactly the music it wants, that speaks for its time effortlessly, that has no style but its own and no rival. But this kind of comparative analysis is not the review I want to write because Merriweather Post Pavilion is a world unto itself. It unfolds new tricks and wonders every listen, one of those epic, stand alone works of art like the film Vertigo, or Dickens’ novel, Our Mutual Friend. It is magnanimous in its musical expression, thrilling in its virtuosity.
Animal Collective gained a great following for its neo-folk, tribal sound that incorporated crazy samples, whoops, handclaps, shouts, and psychedelic laser lights and video loops in its live show to create a modern-day “primitive” experience in which all concert-goers were indoctrinated into one loose, unorthodox, free-wheeling family. It was a raucous, jubilant, infectious, sound that could be both incredibly melodic (Feels) and deliberately fractious (some of Strawberry Jam). Merriweather Post Pavilion takes those strands and weaves them into a rich, shimmering tapestry that is so tight and cohesive, one cannot see the seams in the musical fabric. It is a “polished” record in the sense that all great artists eventually arrive at a perfect synthesis of sound and vision, when all their prowess—technical, instrumental, lyrical—coalesces into a sublime creation. That this achievement came out of a potential catastrophe (the exit of one of the core members, resulting in the need to make a rock record without a guitar), makes it all the more special.
Merriweather Post Pavilion is a dualistic record, whose goal is the resolution of opposites in four dimensions. Four is a magical number—the seasons, the cardinal points, the elements (air, earth, water, fire). Four is also the number of speakers I have rigged to my stereo, and the interplay between the channels, sound ricocheting from corner to corner across the room, is reason enough to buy this record on vinyl, even if you don’t yet own a turntable. Four also numbers the sonic regions this album inhabits, thrust out centrifugally from a core atomic forge with propulsive, radiating energy into places where creation, dream, and collective memory take refuge: swamp, supercollider, bedroom, star. This is a magical record, not in the sense of formulas and incantations, but in its simultaneous embrace of the macro and the micro. “As Above, So Below,” the hermetic doctrine states, and this record is the ultimate realization of that truth, at once full of of cosmic, epochal grandeur and ordinary, everyday realities.
This trend is evident most clearly in the single, “My Girls,” the second track on the album. It starts a ghostly rush of breath (the breath of God or wind sweeping across an unsheltered hilltop?), then unleashes a crush of squiggly, effusive electronic blips, like wild X-rays bouncing scattershot across the galaxy, or an MRI machine gone berserk as cancerous cells explode, spread and snuff themselves endlessly. Then suddenly, the sound changes, and a harmony of voices rises like a thousand white butterflies in a springtime field, taking flight…
Now we are shucking and jiving through the space, as if the cosmos were a giant jukebox, the beat pulsating like the light of ambient suns, voices from nether regions of the stereo hurtling like wayward meteors, the whole shimmering groove turning, orbiting, oscillating in a radiant, spectral whirl. This is the song the universe sings to itself when it wakes up in the morning…
But now the song changes again, picking up the tempo, as we ride one of those meteors back down to earth, plummeting into the midst of an ancient village, singers dancing around the burning hole in the earth, a giant fat man in a plume of feathers wildly beating a huge frog-like drum, and we start to hear the words… And we realize this song that’s taken us across the universe and back is actually about a man renouncing “material things,” content to live for his wife and daughters, to have only “four walls and adobe slabs” to house his family in. What greater statement do we need in these times?
The song ends with an oar paddling through dark shallow water leading through a tall, unnerving canyon of high-stacked harmonies in “Also Frightened,” it’s layered chorus sounding consciously like something left off of the Beatles’ Revolver album. We end up on the bank of a lush green meadow for “Summertime Clothes” in time to cause some trouble. It’s one of the pure rockers on the album, unabashedly romantic and loveable as hell.
The duality continues through the transition between “Daily Routine” and “Bluish” as we move from surging, visionary prog-rock pseudo-symphonies to a shy, love-struck ode to beautiful curls. One minute a solar breeze puffs the pinwheel sails of your spacecraft towards a vast heroic nebula; the next you’re standing in darkness under wooden gym bleachers, your palms slick with sweat, about to have your first kiss. One minute you’re watching the slow birth of a mountain; the next you’re staring at a girl on a bus.
“Lion in a Coma,” with its sampled South African digeridoo-like jaw harp providing the springy beat, is an exhortation to glum, navel-gazing hipsters everywhere to get over their self-pity by getting laid. “This wilderness up in my head needs to get right out of my clothes and up into my BEDROOM!” Awesome. It should be the theme song if Matthew Barney ever makes another Cremaster film.
“No More Runnin'” is perhaps the most accessible song Animal Collective has ever made, in that it sounds straightforward, as if an update on a 70s “Mellow Mafia” ballad by Bread or the Eagles. But that doesn’t make it any less gorgeous or profound. It’s all about an individual coming to terms not just with his life, but with his dreams. No longer running away from things, or running to them. Just sitting alone on a porch, observing and at peace with his surrounding beauty ("the firefly-lit tree"), and knowing, “It’s what I hoped for…” as thunder drums pound distantly, interspersed with pops of bubbling mud and toads croaking from a nearby creek.
“Brothersport,” the closer, well, it just needs to be heard on its own, as all the elements at work in the album’s worth of songs preceding it come together for a simple song from a father trying to get his child to take some yucky medicine. It’s maybe the most uplifting tune I’ve heard in my life, and the less said by me the better. Enjoy it for the first time for yourself.
Merriweather Post Pavilion is actually an open-air concert venue in rural Maryland where the band grew up. It was built by Frank Gehry in 1967, and it’s famous for its near-perfect acoustics. The band admits the strong influence the place and the artists who performed there had on their lives and how that influence informed their desire to make a record worthy of an outdoor performance. That they acknowledge this so freely should be answer enough to those who want to dismiss their triumph as a contemporary knock-off of the Beatles or The Beach Boys. As they repeat like a mantra in “Taste,” “Am I really all the things that are outside of me?” Outside/inside? By the album’s end, after you have long since ceased to be actively thinking of the words and music, having drifted happily into your own personal subconscious meanderings, there is no discernible difference. I only hope I get to hear Animal Collective perform these songs outdoors one day.
Believe in this album; it is good for you. It reflects the transcendent joy that comes from accepting one’s place humbly in the universal order, submitting completely to it, then savoring the bliss to be found everywhere around you. What you are hearing is the sound of scattered ingredients brought together with gracious hearts and dissolved in a bubbling cauldron of inspiration to create a distillation so pure and concentrated it never sounds like anything, in the end, but its own sweet self. It is a work of sonic alchemy producing musical gold.