It only takes two ears to enjoy Animal Collective, even if you view them as a menace in the long run. “Summertime Clothes,” “Peacebone,” “My Girls,” the more excavated “Banshee Beat” and Panda Bear’s solo “Carrots” (or whatever the final third of “Good Girl/Carrots” is known as) are some of the prettiest, most guileless melodies the indie world has ever claimed. They’re even glued to occasional insights: “Weave through the cardboard, smell that trash” should be relatable to anyone who’s spent a stinky summer in Brooklyn. But as you might’ve guessed, there’s a reason these are being singled out, and this reviewer has to make the distinction that what it takes to love Animal Collective, to put them before other beings, is much more complex to understand.
The first thing someone who loves The Clash, Nirvana and Radiohead—previous holders of the Only Band That Matters title—will notice the first time they check in with an Animal Collective album is that it doesn’t rock. Up until 2009’s most critically acclaimed album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, the very notion of drums on the exterior, pounding a beat, causing bodies to move, was uncommon if not alien. (This may not be the case at their shows, but on album it is certain.) Considering Radiohead’s more cerebral moves of late, this in itself isn’t a curio. But Radiohead first won people’s attention with rock and roll and chartered new directions from there. Animal Collective came up via folk and avant-garde electronics, a combination that was all but unheard of before them and has been inescapable since. It’s a feat that rather than starting from A to B they connected say, Q to X. But why did they become a sensation while previously unfathomable genre-splicers like Chumbawamba or Cake became relegated to novelty status?
One hint is in their name. As the monoculture shrank from view in the 2000s with the advent of not just illegal downloading but simply Too Many Bands and still only 24 hours in a day for even the most voracious listeners to choose their pleasure, the idea of a “collective” experience in music was starting to look to many like a museum relic that needed to be preserved. These were not, however, people interested in the innerworkings of say, an Alan Jackson song that may have been connecting the most listeners of a given week in early 2000s America. They wanted music rare enough to mean a lot to the self, yet still experience a feeling so communal that it just had to sound like thousands of others are right there chanting alongside them. Animal Collective’s layered loops of voices had a vertical chorale effect that the more sideways, forward-oriented grooves of Radiohead undeniably paled against. In the ‘90s, we spent so much time watching things move, flit from hyperactive genre to genre, from “electronica” to rap-metal and grunge’s quiet/loud dynamics that we once thought changed the radio forever, that the 2000s became far more interested in standing still, developing one sound and layering it to the clouds, the impossibility of symphonic infinity that drove at least one luminary, one Brian Wilson, insane. Electronic artists were no longer combining everything but the kitchen sink—they were trying to make entire albums using only the faucet.
All of this impacts the way you hear Animal Collective, who for years have conveyed a sense of largesse and grandeur in such a way that there’s still plenty of room on the canvas for the listener to sign their own interpretive strokes. They’re eclectic—but at a glacial pace. This is not the eclecticism of Beck’s Odelay, where you can hear more genres in one song than you can ID in that span of time, but a rather literal melting pot of dreams: everything sounds liquified, even the voices, into a primordial stew where the fun is supposed to be in drawing the influences back out again. Animal Collective fans have thrilled to detect notes of early house purveyor Frankie Knuckles or a Grateful Dead sample refit for a time signature worthy of Rush. The band itself has expressed an interest in creating music that matches the traits of strawberry jam. Scope equals greatness for many—a large chunk of Frank Ocean’s new following wouldn’t have made the jump if he didn’t show them he can vibe with Coldplay and MGMT. But Animal Collective’s albums all sound like Animal Collective, with individual players as buried in the mix as an M.I.A. record, and singers Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s munchkin-to-gremlinlike voices murmuring, squealing and screaming through material that doesn’t always resemble a song. It’s usually interesting, if not rewarding nearly as much as their legions claim and occasionally unlistenable. I wonder exactly how many who swooned over Pitchfork’s 9.6-awarded Merriweather Post Pavilion managed to reach the point where they agreed the motionless, bereft follow-up Fall Be Kind deserved its 8.9.
Either way, here we are. This band is predictable enough to haters who keep trying to hear them, and evocative enough for the many who wonder where they will go next, that the viscous new Centipede Hz will prove a litmus test for the bubble of new fans welcomed into the fold by admirers of say, “My Girls” in TIME Magazine. Fall Be Kind (and Avey Tare’s simply barren solo Down There) could be ignored, remembered at a distance as a minor but offensive trip by people who’ve heard more Eno ambients than Jill Scott albums, to cite one “niche” artist off of my eclectic generation’s grid who still makes good No. 1 albums. Centipede Hz doesn’t sink into the background though. It operates in the foreground, and that’s where it will polarize people who became fans of this band because they didn’t believe commanding attention to be a virtue. It’s also the first Animal Collective album that’s unquestionably some species of “rock” rather than “folk” or “pop.” That much can be gathered from the opening stabs of “Moonjock.”
They’ve only made one other album like this before, Strawberry Jam, and it’s the other time that some longtime fans scrunched up their nose, had to think a little bit about whether or not all the grinding gears and audio slime and concrete lyrical depictions of cooked broccoli were only just starting push boundaries as people claimed they are by risking annoyance. It’s still the closest they’ve come to making a great album, not least because its density to longer to comprehend. Centipede Hz has far more in common with that notion than their reportedly danceable last album—you may end up trying to master “Today’s Supernatural”’s “let-let-let-let-let-let-let-let-let-let GO” refrain in the shower more than you think. But any success is on Animal Collective cultist terms only. This being the most full-bodied, assertive, even angry Animal Collective album yet, a few moments eventually rise up from the, well, jam: the aggressively funky “Monkey Riches,” the hooky coda of “Amanita” and the surprisingly clear-throated singing debut of Collective member Deakin, “Wide Eyed,” which fulfills the bubble-pop promise of Yeasayer’s Odd Blood far better than than their new Fragrant World. Panda Bear’s dubby “New Town Burnout” has messy glints of beauty poking out. The buzzy textures that zip and zoom all over this record, with a few appropriately penned screams by Avey Tare, resemble old video games in the best way.
But this is only progress like the Pope beginning to endorse prophylactics in 2012 is progress. What Hz doesn’t do, and what the group has historically never done, is make good on these kidlike passions. Animal Collective may inspire creative writing but they don’t pose any musical challenges, lyrical koans or unique shows of emotion and feeling. They’re neither as prog nor as pop as diehards think, and even when they evoke funniness, such as the conga roll on “Mercury Man” that sounds like Fred Flintstone foot-pedaling as fast as he can—the effect is finite. If their sonic vocabulary or sense of play was all it’s cracked up to be, I might even demand acknowledgement of sex or current events. There aren’t men and women in this music. There aren’t even aliens. There are…plastic figurines being drowned in a Dole fruit cup and hidden in dirt by a frustrated adolescent. Centipede Hz evokes nothing so much as diner placemats or knockoff dollar store beach pails. Garishly colored banalities disguised as escapism. If the last forefront of imagination for indie-rockers is indeed banality, they’d be better off learning what domestically inclined country singers pack in their kids’ lunches rather than trying to mimic elevator music.
More great music than ever is being made that’s loud, soft, catchy, droning or innovatively produced. But there is also no shortage of bands who’ve taken Animal Collective’s utopian framework and modified it for a more satisfying psychedelic or experimental experience. tUnE-yArDs has hardened their rhythms, swung funkier and brought in politics; Dirty Projectors have honed their harmonies into trickier yet more breathable fabrics and added virtuoso guitar. Beach House poured their everything into discovering the limits of trancelike beauty.
Centipede Hz is not their worst album as some will believe—or as its dense ugliness will first sound—and it may continue to reveal itself over time like TV on the Radio’s Nine Types of Light or Spoon’s Transference. Despite the absence of a singular stunner like “Summertime Clothes” or “Peacebone,” it’s even possible to imagine calling it their best album if we’re still listening for revealing new textures in “Mercury Man” two years from now. But Centipede Hz makes every move that this band, or any great band should be making—clarity, complexity and a willingness to challenge themselves and their audience—and it still fails by the high standard imposed externally by their stature because Animal Collective is not a great band.