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“Experimental pop” is a pretty specious term, but when dealing with a band like Animal Collective and their new album, “Strawberry Jam,” it’s necessary. Pop bands nowadays are trying their best to recreate Brian Wilson’s genius, but their output almost always comes off as just another Beach Boys tribute. Animal Collective is one of the only bands that takes Wilson’s influence to heart and then expands on it, pushing the conventions of pop music to their outer limits.
In large part, that achievement comes because the band never yokes their primal instincts, choosing raw emotive power over restraint in their songs. That’s led to a disparate discography, consisting of eight full-length discs in seven years. As soon as an album’s done, a new batch of songs suddenly crops up, sui generis. Wandering souls can’t sit still, and so the band never encounters their own boundaries because such boundaries don’t exist.
But “Strawberry Jam” may be the only Animal Collective album fully possessed by a need to exist completely in the present. The album’s sessions reportedly involved the band piling into a car in Tucson and driving into the desert, recording live and eschewing overdubbing, emerging with something organic, fresh, and utterly mercurial.
Take opener “Peacebone,” which starts with what sounds like a command before evaporating into bubbling electronics, then settling into a narrative that’s low on coherency but high on feeling.
Animal Collective has always been in favor of using the human voice as an instrument, but here the words are deployed more for emotional heft than sonic weight. “Peacebone” is a rollicking high adventure despite lyrics like “A peacebone got found / in the dinosaur wing.” The song’s a push forward, but Animal Collective still lets some nostalgia and even a bit of melancholy seep in, ruminating about how “An obsession with the past is like a kid flying / Just a few things are related to the old times.”
“Strawberry Jam” embraces the incongruities it lays out in “Peacebone” and spreads them across the album, preventing any one rhythm from ever really taking over. “Chores” tumbles over itself so quickly as to leave you breathless by the end, “#1” gives in entirely to electronic elements, and album-closer “Derek” revisits the band’s early obsession with acoustic folk.
At the core of all this schizophrenic songwriting, however, is Animal Collective’s strongest diptych yet—two songs, thirteen minutes all together, and the closest thing to a mission statement by the band. They’ve always been aware that song pairs can unlock synergistic power—see 2004’s “Sung Tongs” openers “Leaf House” and “To Catch a Rabbit” for proof—but this album’s “For Reverend Green” and “Fireworks” unlock the band themselves.
Avey Tare’s voice dominates here, fluctuating between crooning and yelping as all the vulnerability and melancholy he faced out in the desert pours out in catharsis. It’s on “For Reverend Green” that he finally confronts himself and realizes his nature: “Now I think it’s alright to feel inhuman / Now I think that’s alright, yeah.”
It’s about as dark and disillusioned as the band’s lyrics have sounded; but when “sometimes you don’t know yourself,” as the band says, you have to let people in. Animal Collective does this through the highly accessible “Fireworks,” placing an emotive, scattershot soliloquy over metronomic rhythms, ghostly cooing, and subtle electronic swirls. “For Reverend Green” admitted that everything’s not okay; “Fireworks” presents a perfect world where everything is. It’s an utterly relatable vision that anyone can share.
The fleeting, urgent nature of life, and consequently, the band’s music, comes through in ”Fireworks”: “What’s the day, what’s you doing? / How’s your mood, how’s that song? / Man it passes right by me / It’s behind me, now it’s gone.”
The longing is explicit, the meaning is clear, and it vanishes just as quickly as it appears.
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