Let’s try to remember the Spring of 2004 if we can. We’re at the Knitting Factory in New York. Are you picturing this? Animal Collective’s sort-of breakthrough record, "Sung Tongs," that campfire chanting acoustic drone-y minor classic, had just come out. Many in the crowd were probably hoping for a return to the band’s noisy, pre-"Sung Tongs" identity. Many newer initiates were likely thinking: two guys with acoustic guitars and hackey-sacks sitting on stools maybe? Instead, the band, in full electric guitar regalia played one dreamily endless set of the as yet-unheard songs that would become their next album, "Feels". It felt like one long, continuous wave of gentle, but also overwhelming and joyous, melody. My friend Bill, a man of few words if there ever was one, described it as “magical”. I am not exaggerating when I say that I wept and held hands with complete strangers.
From that moment—and, for the people who bought Sung Tongs expecting the churning, bottomless pit of ritual sound that was "Here Comes the Indian", likely long before—Animal Collective have stayed one step ahead of their listeners. I mean that in a totally admiring way; the band is restless in the way of most great artists, never content to coast on the strength of previous successes, always searching for new ways to communicate. Although Feels traded heavily in those shimmering electric guitars, underneath was as level of synthetic, processed and sampled sound that served as a sort of textural counterpoint. Those sounds have come to the forefront on the just-released "Strawberry Jam". We hear digital clicks and hums, keyboards, tape loops, drum machines and all the rest. Guitars, if we hear any at all, have dropped way back into a supporting role. In another way, though, "Strawberry Jam" is the most conventional Animal Collective record yet. All of those elements are more polished and less organic sounding than they’ve ever been. And, in fact, they serve not so much as the substance of the music as a means of highlighting the band’s continually developing pop songcraft.
In general, when I read things like the last sentence I just wrote, I tend to have the sinking feeling that something I once loved will start to be a little less distinctive, a little less adventurous. And, in many ways, this is how I feel about "Strawberry Jam". The textures and landscapes on this album are not as rich, nor as original as they were in previous work; they seem to have taken a small step toward “electronic music” and the great, mushy indistinct mass that makes up the majority of that aisle in the record store. But despite all that, and despite my best efforts at disappointment, there are moments on this record that absolutely knock me on my ass. In whatever aesthetic framework they are working, Animal Collective just has that knack for the indescribable, ineffable moment of wonder; for finding those little crystalline pockets of beauty that make matter and time dissolve around you and make you look out at a suddenly brand-new world with your eyes wide, wide open. Avey Tare’s voice has never been this supple and expressive, his lyrics never more perceptive and heartfelt, and a few of these songs—'Peacebone', 'Cuckoo Cuckoo', and especially, my God, 'Fireworks'—well, I don’t really know what to say about them except that they fill my heart right up, over the brim.
For weeks now I’ve been happily lost in the dark hollows of viscous, unsparing instrumental music, a sometimes scary, sometimes enervating place. It’s a place I sometimes go when the world seems weird and songs with words and parts no longer make sense to me. I came to this Animal Collective record in that state of mind, expecting that same atmosphere, that same sense of danger. There is a bit of that for sure, but somehow, through their far-off clicks and buzzes, their strange world of sound, they managed to bring me back to the idea of the pop song, that direct, concise piece of unmoored time that arranges the world in its own image. Pop music comes in strange disguises: the songs of old/dead black men sung by a skinny, anti-social Jewish kid from northern Minnesota; the oblique compositions of an elfin, harp-wielding virtuoso; disco, as interpreted by two robot Frenchmen. The world is fucking ridiculous. We are desperate to communicate. Isn’t it amazing?