Has there ever been a review of an Animal Collective record that didn’t include a variation of the phrase “soaked in weird synth sounds”? The band resisted easy categorization by following their muse from one unexpected set of sounds and samples to the next, unhindered by the idea of what an Animal Collective album is. should to be. Yes, the underlying talent for pop melodies, eclectic musical fusion and sophisticated vocal harmonies runs through the band’s output like a lifeline, but always at the service of the next ambitious sonic exploration.
But maybe for the first time with boats of time, Animal Collective feels like they’ve found a rhythm and are sticking to it. No more jumping between the electronic sassiness of They Might Be Giants like “FloriDada” and the indie-pop bounce of “Golden Gal” found on 2016’s final album. paint with. Also absent is the jerky shift from spacious beauty to strobe, anthemic bangers like “My Girls” that defined the band’s intricate masterpiece, Merriweather Park Pavilion. And the often overloaded intensity of Centipede Hz? Not found. The band is after something quite different here.
That something is a unifying sound style – exotica, the musical style of the 50s and 60s that filtered through a variety of international influences, primarily from the Caribbean, Polynesia, and more. Animal Collective returns to this sound time and time again on their 11th studio album, moving away from both their more folk-influenced early work and the playful electronica of the past decade. No, that’s enough boats of time is an organic sense of languorous groove, delivered through often minimalist polyrhythms and understated arrangements – for Animal Collective, anyway, which obviously moves on an unusual curve.
This greater feeling of uniformity should not, however, be interpreted as homogeneity. Undaunted is the band’s commitment to chasing any artful melody down a rabbit hole of offbeat shifts, as evidenced by single “Strung With Everything,” which leaps from sonic collage weirdness on call. and hoarse response. rock eruptions from the tent of rebirth. The group has never looked more like Phish, which becomes less of a backhanded compliment considering the Grateful Dead influences that have played a recurring role in Animal Collective interviews and live shows.
Perhaps emboldened by the strange palate cleanser of tangerine reefthe abstract and somewhat alienating musical accompaniment of Animal Collective to the aquatic underwater visuals of Australian filmmakers Coral Morphologic, the band leaves boats of time to breathe. There’s no rush to fill the space with sound, or to make abrupt 180-degree pivots in the middle of a song; instead, grooves and rhythmic patterns dictate the direction of the music, a process that results in much repetition in arrangements, though rarely to its detriment. This is a deeply cohesive album of songs that flow smoothly from one to the next. There’s nothing that stands out from the rest – no great songwriting zenith – but there are no duds either. It’s just…solid.
There are, however, moments that border on a kind of transcendent catharsis. After beginning with a simple two-chord progression that turns into a hopping drum pattern and choppy keys, the back half of “Prester John” finds the harmony of the band’s vocals coming together for a repeated phrase at the infinite, powerful and moving. And ambient background noises slowly rise to the fore and engulf things – a nicely symbolic representation of Animal Collective’s undying fascination with how cutting-edge sounds can transmute music.
And the album’s centerpiece, “Cherokee,” also creates beauty out of simple oddities. The jazzy minimalism of the hi-hat rhythm lends an almost Paul Simon sensibility to Avey Tare’s deep voice. With spare bass accompaniment and distant washes of rising and falling fuzz, it delivers a fully-formed version of the tiki-lounge exoticism that pervades boats of timewhile offering intriguing voices on the confusion of consumer culture and its disjunction with cultures that preceded our own.
Honestly, this might be Animal Collective’s closest thing to making a post-rock album. “We Go Back” could almost be mistaken for a Tortoise song at first, if it weren’t for the band’s signature layered harmonies. And the tropicalia-infused “Car Keys” limit the band’s playfulness with a lizard lounge vibe, as Panda Bear’s voice dances around Tare’s, the refrain of “How are we now?” doubling as a question for listeners looking for more art-damaged pop.
If the songs sometimes flow too freely into each other, the resulting synthesis of mood and tone makes for a singular musical document, which always feels one piece with itself. It slips from the languid avant-melodism of “Passer-by” (invoking comparisons to equally experimental pop acts as of EUS in the process) to the elegiac swoon of “Royal And Desire” closer without ever sounding like an engineer who shut down the tape. boats of time is a record intended to be played back and forth; for those who want to ride the gentler waves, this is a satisfying skiff, indeed.