ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION (2009)
One decade of fooling around, and here is the payoff: Merriweather Post Pavilion put the Animal Collective in the big league, not only prompting rave reviews on the part of every respectable penname, but even climbing surprisingly high up the charts, perhaps on the strength of these reviews. Perhaps the most surprising element, though, is how they managed to do it unaccompanied by irate cries of "sell out" from their dedicated guard of honour.
There are some important technical differences from Strawberry
But then there is an even bigger break: Pavilion also continues the trend of transforming the outfit from a pack of weird fairytale goofballs into a team of super-serious Messengers, equipped with a serious claim. What that claim is, I am not sure; perhaps it does not even exist, because these days it is doggone hard to distinguish real Messengers from phoney ones. However, even if they are phonies, they now know how to do a pretty good job of faking it.
My biggest problem with Strawberry Jam was the lack of soul; maybe their own problem was similar, because on Pavilion, it looks like they are actively searching for it, even if they may not necessarily have found it. Whatever the answer, their vision of "soul" includes adding the following elements: (a) ever-increasing production depth — "soul" implies an impression of being hid under a bunch of layers, and you get a better chance of conveying "soul" if you sound like you're playing out of the bottom of a well than if you're diddling on your listener's front porch; (b) ever improving vocal arrangements — now they're openly quoting the Beach Boys' moves (listen to the 'then we could be dancing / no more missing you while I'm gone' passage on the opening track... sound familiar?) and, even when they are not, they still leave behind the scent of Brian Wilson's trail to spiritual enlightenment; (c) including more and more "catchy" and "accessible" melodic elements in many of their songs — the "hit number" 'My Girls' is practically hummable, and the chorus to 'Bluish' ('Put on the dress that I like...') is hummable and gorgeous; (d) injecting more sense — or, at least, pretending to inject more sense — into the lyrics, so that professional reviewers like Mark Richardson of Pitchforkmedia can come up with ultra-meaningful conclusions like (I quote) 'the words reinforce the sense of vulnerability that cuts through the music, and wind up being an essential component on an album that oozes confidence from every pore'.
Shiver me timbers, I have no idea how you can combine 'vulnerability' with 'confidence' in the exact same spot, but then one thing has certainly not changed for the Animal Collective: they still make it one of their major goals to confuse their audiences, especially confuse them into writing assessments of their music whose meaninglessness increases in direct proportion to their assumed seriousness. So let us not hold it against Mark Richardson who is, I am sure of that, writing from the very depths of his heart. It's just that they have been confused, these depths.
In more simple terms, Merriweather Post Pavilion has some beautiful pop melodies ('Bluish'), some inspiring martial melodies ('Summertime Clothes'), some head-spinning atmospheric melodies ('No More Runnin'), and some disturbingly pretentious statement songs ('My Girls') that rail against 'fancy things' and 'social status', for the first time ever establishing the band's socio-political creed and providing the indie community with one of the decade's loudest anthems. If you can stand all the tape loops and the relatively monotonous style of vocal arrangements, Pavilion may even seem to be their most diverse record, although the quintessence behind all the songs is really the same, and the effect of "kaleidoscopic rainbow" is being generated more or less equally by all of its individual tracks.
Whether that rainbow is a real one or made out of plastic is something I have not been able to understand, even on my own personal level — the album has grown much upon me since the first listen, but I am still not ready to accept the same warmth I used to get from 'good, good, good, good vibrations' from 'open up your, open up your, open up your throat' ('Brother Sport'), and it is not just the lyrics — it is still the same nagging feeling that, for Panda Bear and Avey Tare, form comes first and substance comes next, if it comes at all.
One thing is for certain: no matter how much critical praise, or even commercial success, is awarded to Pavilion today, it will never do the same thing for its generation that Pet Sounds did for theirs — for one simple reason: only a small handful of people will be able to sincerely react to it on the same level that a lot of people were able to react to Brian Wilson's teenage symphonies half a century before. And even if this small handful of people represents the sharpest and brightest minds of their generation (how do we know, though?), this would only mean that their elitist asses will be kicked into the dust pretty soon. And anyway, I do not want to live in a world where the highest standard of "art" is represented by Merriweather Post Pavilion any more than I want to live in a world where Taylor Swift stays at the top of the charts for over a month.
In short, my intellect's response to the album is a thumbs up, my heart's response is predictably confused, and my overall feeling, upon re-reading the review, seems somewhat suicidal. But I suspect that is exactly the kind of reaction that the Animal Collective wanted to extract from me.