Animal Collective might consist of four dudes, but most of the fans the band has picked up since releasing their 2004 indie smash Sung Tongs have been wooed by the ear-friendly whiles of members Avey Tare and Panda Bear. When that album dropped, the few folks who had heard the Collective thought of them as a spasmodic, stoned-out-of-its-mind freakshow. Early recordings like “Infant Dressing Table” fused raucous electronics with wide-open song forms, and live convergences were (and still are, really) disorienting bro-downs filled with abstract tinkering, subversive auditory pyrotechnics, and physical, immersive drones. How early Animal Collective were pegged as free-folk escapes me. Their aesthetic was more akin to a noise rock rethink of far-gone frat rock bands like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers.
But back to Avey and Panda. In the absence of other Collective members, they created with Sung Tongs a less disorienting clime. This song cycle was suffused with whopping vocal melodies and intelligible acoustic guitar lines, and technology was no longer an instrument of torture. Think of the album as a shift from world-destroying to world-building: instead of screeching and exploding, samples and loops meshed into walls of ebbing, natural rhythm. Its textures might have been rough-hewn, its open chord strumming a bit queasy, its vocal lines contorted, but Sung Tongs was ultimately less intentionally and confrontationally bizarre than its predecessors. It showed the Collective (well, at least half of it) diving into the moony headspace of Eno, Kevin Shields, and early 1990s British post-rockers, that oceanic world where the studio is privileged over the concert hall.
And the group has more or less stayed this course ever since. Feels saw them grow more comfortable with contrivance and gauzy reverb, and even experimental side projects like Jane were most indebted to studio-based genres (techno, dub, ambient). And now Panda Bear (aka Noah Lennox) has completed the most sonically satisfying statement to emerge yet from the Collective. Person Pitch traffics heavily in the two elements that Lennox has always brought to the table: sticky-sweet vocal melody and meticulously-crafted otherness.
Also think of this record as Lennox’s purest distillation of a long apparent Brian Wilson fixation. “Take Pills” sounds at first like a complete Pet Sounds rip: guitars chiming far back in the mix, tambourines clapping gently as seashell breakers, sunny multilayered vocals pulling all of the melodic weight. Lyrics don’t mention the beach or the expectations and anxieties of young adulthood, but the sampled water sounds suggest all of that, if only by making us think Beach Boys. And Lennox yanks out similar bags of signifying tricks in “Bros” and “Comfy in Nautica”.
Here’s the point where the review could digress into song-parsing. But much more is at stake in Person Pitch than the reinterpretation of classic 1960s pop music, so droning on about which percussive samples sound like games of table tennis and which ones evoke decade-old Berlin techno 12-inches would wear us both down. What’s striking to me is the ineffable emotional pull that this album, like all recent Animal Collective transmissions, carries. Perhaps nostalgia’s to blame: the Wilson-aping and the more general oldies-aping (check the acrobatic vocals in “Take Pills”‘s B-section — could be a girl group, could be the Everly Brothers) send me back to my childhood, causing me to recall all the emotions therein. But that’s a really subjective take, one that’s of a pair with those “soundtrack to your own imaginary film” remarks that so many listeners make about instrumental rock acts. The sound and sense of the melodies are all Lennox gives us, though — his lyrics are very often obscured by studio trickery. Word has it that these songs deal with a series of recent changes — marriage, relocation, fatherhood — in Lennox’s life. This tidbit might explain the crying baby in “Bros”, but it does little to help me understand how and why Person Pitch affects me.
I can say with confidence, however, that my reaction is one that Lennox and his crew hope to elicit. “We’re trying to get music and art back to expressing itself on some visceral level,” Collective member Deakin told Arthur in November 2005. And felt connection matters alone to the group: when asked about their lyrics, Panda and Avey frequently insist that the emotional bonds listeners form to their (mis)interpretations of a song’s words matter more than the song’s actual verbal content. Sure enough, many of the phrases I can make out — “Take a risk just for yourself and wade into the deep end of the ocean”, “When my soul starts growing / I get so hungry / And I wish it never would stop growing” — are palimpsests; Lennox could be singing about mountain biking, jockeying for Employee of the Month, falling in love, or seeking God. Great pop always speaks in generalities — that’s how it becomes popular. But I can’t help but feel self-centered when I listen to Person Pitch. The album lacks a representational capacity: it fails to show us anything outside our selves. Panda Bear peddles sincerity in its raw, unprocessed form; no need to know what he means, as long as we know he means it.