MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION
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When advance copies of Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective's ninth studio album, first circulated in late 2008, the group was still widely considered a freak-folk curio, an arty sideshow for devotees, a would-be jam band that refused to jam. Crabby rock fans dismissed them as mere "hipster" avatarsliberal-arts farceurs/record-store clerks frolicking in face paint and talking openly of "soundscapes."
Then people actually heard the record. From the moment keyboardist-guitarist Dave "Avey Tare" Portner mused, "If I could just leave my body for a night," and the pastoral swell of opening track "In the Flowers" became a shuddering swirl of beats, the group entered a headier realm. Melodies swooped and swooned. Ambient interludes teased and mesmerized. Bass bubbled and boomed. The squishy acoustic nature walks and harsh abstractions of the past had receded.
Like Primal Scream's Screamadelica or Radiohead's OK Computer, Merriweather was a seamless reinvention, like transforming an intriguing display into a defining tableau. But unlike those bands, who used electronic music to reshape trad-rock tropes, Animal Collective absorbed the rhythmic kick of house, hip-hop, techno, dub, etc., to coax those baffled by their more avant digressions. "We talked about the bass a lot," says Portner. "We knew a lot of the rhythms on our records in the past were disjointed, and we wanted to try to achieve that banging excitement where people are amped and dancing."
While Merriweather invoked dance music's escapist pulse, many of the album's most memorable songs ("My Girls," "Bluish," "Brother Sport") were also rooted in a palpable yearning for the connection and security of family. Themes of death, birth, marriage, childhood, and parenthood reverberated from virtually every track. A choral refrain like "Are you also frightened?" bubbled with a communal joy.
The band members themselves were trying to maintain a familial connection. Natives of suburban Baltimore and later based in Brooklyn, they've lived apart for a few yearsPortner in Manhattan; singer-percussionist Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox in Lisbon, Portugal; and sound collagist Brian "Geologist" Weitz in Washington, D.C. To reimagine themselves as essentially an all-electronic trioin part inspired by Panda Bear's own sample-heavy, Pet Sounds postcard Person Pitchthey sought out an engineer, Ben Allen, who possessed a notably eclectic résumé (Gnarls Barkley collaborator, former staffer at Diddy's Bad Boy Records, indie-rock guitarist). He suggested they hole up at Sweet Tea Studios, a cozy refuge in Oxford, Mississippi, where the threesome also rented a group house.
The bucolic Southern atmosphere, Sweet Tea's trove of gear, and Allen's expertise in blending beats and vocals somehow combined to conjure an album like none beforea ravelike odyssey that celebrated domestic bliss. "I think it's the most human of our records," says Portner. "On our other stuff, there was always this alien-world aspect we were trying to push. Merriweather is more personal and cuts to the point. Lyrically, the songs all reflect what we were dreaming of, what we were sad or happy about at the time. It's very transparent."
Like 2007 and 2008, only more so, 2009 was a year in which music felt like a particular aesthetic choice or activitythe "little group" of the like-minded invoked in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has become an ever-tinier series of satellite cliques. But that doesn't mean the music itself was less revelatory. Merriweather's U.S. sales of 130,000-plus pale next to the millions of, say, Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga, but the aural and emotional world the album created was undeniably vast. And the group's playfully psychedelic live performances shamed U2 for a transporting spectacle.
Animal Collective always claimed an affection for pop music, but their warped perspective on it was often perversely willful. Now Portner observes amid the kaleidoscopic daze of Merriweather's "Taste": "I like their clothes and their charming ways / But what I really want is a simple place." Who, really, can't relate to that? CHARLES AARON