Last week saw the release of experimental pop group Animal Collective’s newest album Time Skiffs, the latest in the band’s extensive career spanning more than two decades. The jam-band approach and new instrumentation of Time Skiffs promise to reignite longtime AnCo fans’ excitement about the band following their longest gap between studio releases to date, and is especially fascinating to consider in relation to the group’s earlier work.
To mark this new record’s release, we’re taking a look back at the band’s entire discography to date and ranking every studio album from Animal Collective. The shifts in the group’s style and approach and even their lineup between records have made lists such as these an intensely subjective and debated affair among fans, and this list will surely be no different. From canonical classics to divisive titles, these albums from David Portner (Avey Tare), Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), Brian Weitz (Geologist) and/or Josh Dibb (Deakin) have spanned more differing avenues than most bands ever dare to explore.
The band’s vast catalog of numerous EPs, live records, visual albums and solo releases is beyond the scope of this piece, which will only cover AnCo’s main 11 studio albums. With that in mind, let’s dive right into this comprehensive retrospective on the many modes of Animal Collective that have brought them to Time Skiffs.
11. Ark (2003)
Animal Collective’s remarkable consistency in quality means that none of their albums are outright “bad.” But Ark—one of two albums the group released in 2003 during their prolific early period—takes the unfortunate spot in this bottom position for lacking the cohesion of the band’s stronger material. As the first AnCo album to feature all four members, Ark was recorded in a three-day sprint and mixed just as quickly, capturing the “hectic and chaotic” energy of the band’s tumultuous personal dilemmas (including Panda Bear and Avey Tare’s financial difficulties, as well as Geologist’s decision to return to graduate school and temporarily leave the band). The result is an album that often feels like it’s being pulled apart at the seams—noisy and fast-paced one moment, and haunting with its ambience and negative space the next.
Structurally, though, these two modes of the record never fully mesh, with the album’s spacious middle span jarringly contrasted by frantic passages on either side. But individual songs on this release still stand out, especially the percussive distortion-laden “Slippi” and the sonic experimentation on centerpiece “Infant Dressing Table,” an early highlight of AnCo’s fixation on childhood and aging. Ultimately, though, Ark feels like a relatively minor work in a discography full of stiff competition.
10. Danse Manatee (2001)
Animal Collective’s sophomore effort often gets short-changed as the band’s “growing pains” record, dismissed as inert freeform experimentation bridging the evocative noise of their debut and the focus of their later work. But despite its low placement on this list, Danse Manatee has far more to offer than its reputation insinuates. Through Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Geologist’s improvisational approach to messing with extreme frequencies, Danse Manatee becomes a hypnotizingly enveloping record whose abrasive identity inspires an unexpected comfort, rather than alienation.
Though the album begins with one of Animal Collective’s most immediately harsh sequences in the trio of “A Manatee Dance,” “Penguin Penguin” and “Another White Singer (Little White Glove),” this introduction serves to brace the listener for the specific frequency palette that defines Danse Manatee, with the following standout “Essplode” serving as a relative respite from the noisier passages. This opening run is the skeleton key that unlocks the rest of the record, its ebbs and flows like tumblers clicking into place. Notably, the ever-evolving “Meet the Light Child” acts as a microcosm for the album’s jumps between more extreme sounds and its quieter moments, and “Ahhh Good Country” makes the most of its length via a cathartic buildup to an explosive climax. Late cut “Throwin’ the Round Ball” even thematically connects the childhood focus of previous album Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished to the subsequent distortion of Ark. While it does stall in some spans (namely the repetitive doldrums of “The Living Toys”), Danse Manatee deserves reconsideration as a unified experiment by a band pushing their sonic limits. And, at least personally, by the time this album finishes with the muted euphoria of “In the Singing Box,” the experimentation feels almost inviting, its unusual textures taking on a serene familiarity.
9. Campfire Songs (2003)
Listening to Campfire Songs feels like draping yourself in your favorite lined flannel shirt on a breezy fall night. The dimensions of the acoustic soundscapes are vivid. You feel as if you’re right there—across a bonfire, or perhaps passing time on a covered porch as it rains just outside—while the band plays in a space intimate enough for only you to hear. More than any other release from Animal Collective, Campfire Songs nails the specifics of inhabiting a particular space in a particular season. It is scenic beyond compare, so fluid and organic that it feels like it could only have been carved out in the moment it was put to tape—the freest essence of AnCo imaginable.
In reality, the record is the culmination of meticulous planning from the band, working for “a month or so” to get the transitions between all five songs just right so they could record the album all in one take. Even elements of Campfire Songs’ ambience were a deliberate decision, recorded two months after the songs themselves and mixed in afterward. All this intentionality creates a listen that embodies a spirit of playful improvisation despite being anything but. The slow buildup of introductory track “Queen in My Pictures” gives way to the album’s melodic highlight “Doggy,” before the energy dissipates into something looser once again. Spurts of onomatopoeic vocal intonations that start “Moo Rah Rah Rain” lend the song the impression of friends seeing what they can create with their voices alone. And album closer “De Soto de Son” drifts in and out of its central refrain with a carefree patience that concludes the record as peacefully as it began. It may not have the songwriting structures that make later Animal Collective albums easier to immediately latch onto, and middle track “Two Corvettes” feels more like a transitory passage than its own piece, but overall, Campfire Songs is a uniquely complete listen. If nothing else, it remains perhaps the most immersive record the band has ever made, sweeping you up into the auditory scenes it sets.
8. Painting With (2016)
In the six years since its release, AnCo’s previous album hasn’t waned in its divisiveness, holding a reputation among many as a rare dud from the band. But—though some songs lack richness due to being recorded without prior live play-testing, and the one-two of slighter tracks “Spilling Guts” and “Summing the Wretch” generate some late-album fatigue—Painting With has more worth than its detractors may believe.
Never content to stick to the same sound for more than one album, Animal Collective use Painting With to steer the traditional approach to a “straightforward pop album” into a realm entirely their own. That realm is the much-maligned hocketing Avey Tare and Panda Bear use to trade off vocals, volleying the same words back and forth at rapid speeds to lend the tracks a sing-song quality. While this could come off as a gimmick in the hands of another artist, the joy in Painting With lies in how Avey Tare and Panda Bear approach each song from a new angle with this technique in mind. “Lying in the Grass” is excitingly infectious in this regard, with Avey Tare and Panda Bear seesawing along over the melodic core they and Geologist build. Similarly, “Hocus Pocus” makes a strong first impression on the record for how seamlessly Avey Tare and Panda Bear weave in and out of hocketing one moment and euphoric synchronization the next.
But beyond the use of its trademark technique, what emerges from attentive listens to Painting With is Animal Collective’s compelling approach to direct pop songwriting. Whether employing call-and-response vocals on opener “FloriDada,” or bright harmonies as in “On Delay” and “Golden Gal,” Avey Tare and Panda Bear continually warp the songs’ pop structures against the grain with entrancing intricacies. The record’s strongest synth instrumentals buck rigid forms in their own way, as well, especially on underappreciated gem “The Burglars,” a track that compounds until exhilaratingly tipping over like a rollercoaster hitting its big drop. The greatest appeal of the album comes from the tight cohesion between the three band members featured on the record, and their enthusiasm in bringing new sounds to the forefront (particularly in the form of instrumental guest spots from John Cale and Colin Stetson). Though many other albums in Animal Collective’s discography share this sense of camaraderie and community, it’s easy to see why this album’s approach incited Avey Tare to deliver a mid-set speech about the importance of collectivism while touring behind it. Other albums more clearly define the joy of collaboration that AnCo bring, but that doesn’t diminish the strengths of Painting With.
7. Centipede Hz (2012)
Arranged as a pseudo-radio transmission, Centipede Hz fades in and out like pockets of signal clarity in a cross-country drive. Radio jingles and advertisements for Johnnie Walker overlap with melodies. Backing vocals slice through the mix like phantom broadcasts drifting through errant FM signals. Entire sides of the record are sequenced as if cobbled together into radio blocks, with station identification tags and white noise creating seamless runs of songs, often with lengthy outros acting as standins for DJ transitions. The Deakin-led highlight “Wide Eyed” gets swallowed up in its closing moments by a looping sample that sounds like it’s breaking into the same radio frequency. Centipede Hz is Animal Collective at their greatest adherence to the conceptual—mostly to inspired success.
It’s the album’s live instrumentation—drowned in the same distortion as its radio ambience—that lends Centipede Hz its striking immediacy and propulsion, resulting in some of the best standalone tracks of AnCo’s career. Opener “Moonjock” makes the most of its time signature switches to rhythmically accompany its lyrical narrative of childhood family road trips, while closer “Amanita” takes a similar hairpin turn in its waning moments to push the album into a wild final sprint. Singles “Today’s Supernatural” and “Monkey Riches” lace their scrambled mixing with the band’s most infectious hooks, notably making the latter’s near-seven-minute runtime fly by. But there’s no stronger example of the expert marriage between the warped production and stellar songwriting of Centipede Hz than “Applesauce,” an Avey Tare-fronted song that’s one of his finest reflections on nostalgia and youth. Setting dense rapid-fire lyricism against an ingeniously escalating multi-hook structure, Avey Tare applies a level of craft and care to “Applesauce” that makes the track a standout even among the absorbing allure of the tracklist at large. Ten years out from its initial mild response, Centipede Hz proves to be a captivating ride with all these cumulative and symbiotic strengths in sound and songwriting (even with a few road bumps in pacing, like slower mid-record cut “New Town Burnout”). For those days you feel the call of the open road before you, there’s no better album in Animal Collective’s catalog.
6. Time Skiffs (2022)
Something you notice from looking at Animal Collective’s discography is that they rarely used to take any time off between albums as a group. That started shifting after the release of Merriweather Post Pavilion, with Centipede Hz, Painting With and now Time Skiffs taking increasingly longer spans between their releases. But those gaps between AnCo records are never uneventful, as the members of the band always keep busy with EPs and solo releases that further the evolution of Animal Collective as a … well, collective. This is especially true for the period of time between Painting With and Time Skiffs, which saw the release of multiple projects from Avey Tare and Panda Bear, as well as Deakin’s debut album and a tour-exclusive tape from Geologist. In short, the years between Painting With and Time Skiffs were fruitful for each member of Animal Collective further carving out their own individual style, waiting until the time was just right to bring all these developments together as a band entering a new era of their career.
That refinement of singular strengths for the benefit of the group is present through nearly every moment of Time Skiffs, and the album is all the better for it. Avey Tare’s songs feel like natural evolutions from solo cuts like 2019’s “K.C. Yours,” unfurling with greater patience and complexity than his tracks have in years, with the multiple sections on “Strung with Everything” and “Cherokee” building to invigorating climaxes. Panda Bear’s vocals and melodies feel like they have a new jolt of life in them, from the playful jaunt of “Walker” to the soaring highs of “Car Keys.” The album is vocally cohesive all around, in part due to expanding AnCo’s harmonies to include Deakin—who shines in co-leading “Prester John” with Panda Bear, and on his own on closer “Royal and Desire,” a track that’s particularly indebted to his star-making turn on 2016 solo record Sleep Cycle. AnCo’s sound as a band is tighter than it’s been in a decade, delighting in interplay, as on the autotuned hocketing of “We Go Back,” or allowing for stellar spotlights, as on the cavernous drum fills and screamed coda of “Strung with Everything.” It may be early to deliver a definitive statement on Time Skiff’s overall place in Animal Collective’s career, but even from an initial judgment, the album radiates with the contagious joy of all four bandmates finally coming together again and bringing years’ worth of fine-tuning to the record. And it may well turn out to age into one of the band’s most enduring works.
5. Strawberry Jam (2007)
In many ways, Strawberry Jam is the most crucial turning point for Animal Collective. As the band’s first album released on Domino, Strawberry Jam not only served as AnCo’s follow-up to their much-buzzed-about two previous records (Sung Tongs and Feels) that proved they had staying power, but also synthesized the band’s earlier discordant tendencies with those albums’ propensity for indelible melodies. The sound of Strawberry Jam, consequently, is just as the album cover purports it to be: colorful, messy, bright, and sometimes feeling like the compositions can melt or wilt in a moment’s notice. As a result, it’s one of the group’s most immediate albums—often disorienting or working in ephemeral bursts, but undeniably memorable nevertheless.
The appeal of the album is there right from the start: A disordered loop of abrasive electronic noise gives way to a simple, stomping rhythm that makes up the backbone of “Peacebone.” From its very first moments, Strawberry Jam makes it emphatically clear that, no matter what circuitous avenues the record may go down, there will be a sugary and inviting throughline for the listener to hold onto. This becomes a guiding principle throughout these songs, from the sudden lurches in and out of stuttering vocal repetitions on “Chores” to the simple percussion that emerges in the midst of a dizzying synth arpeggio on “#1.”
All this is to say that, among all the chaos and experimentation, Strawberry Jam contains some of Animal Collective’s most accomplished moments of songwriting and album construction. “For Reverend Green,” on its own, would already be one of the band’s crowning achievements—packed with sprawling, free-associative Avey Tare lyricism that bursts into strained screams at its most passionate moments, eventually building up its titular refrain before erupting into one final cathartic yell. But “For Reverend Green” is made all the more striking for its impeccable crossfade into beloved single “Fireworks” immediately afterward. A stark contrast to the song that precedes it, “Fireworks” stands out for being perhaps the band’s most unabashedly poppy track, sweetly pairing lyrics from Avey Tare on longing and introspection with the exuberant march of a perpetual drumbeat and cozy guitarwork. Panda Bear leaves a strong mark on the record, as well, in his earliest prominent vocal leads on “Chores” and “Derek”—the former is a bouncy, guitar-driven ode to relaxing at the end of a long day’s work, and the latter a reminiscence about a childhood dog that breaks into a pulsing conclusive drumbeat.
But what lands Strawberry Jam this high up is how the most direct and underappreciated tracks—like “Unsolved Mysteries,” revolving around a skipping Beatles loop warped beyond recognition, and “Winter Wonder Land” in its manic, percussion-driven rush—hold their own against the juggernauts of the album. It’s easy to see why Strawberry Jam marked the beginning of a bold new rise for the band, and it didn’t take long for Animal Collective to deliver on that promise in even greater fashion.
4. Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009)
At this point, it’s practically impossible to overstate the impact and significance of Merriweather Post Pavilion. It’s the album that fully broke Animal Collective through to wider recognition, a landmark record in late-2000s indie, and the source of some of the most iconic contemporary psychedelic-pop songs. It met acclaim unlike anything the band had ever seen before and unlike anything they’ve achieved since, preemptively canonized even before its release due to a glut of live performances, leaks and listening parties. It reached a level of ubiquity that prominent indie albums rarely see these days, to a degree that writing about the album would appear in even the most unexpected outlets.
So it should come as no surprise that Merriweather Post Pavilion is, in fact, just as good as its reputation implies—an airtight, meticulously arranged piece of synth-pop perfection whose brightness never sacrifices the band’s consummate knack for effervescent, unified songwriting. It’s an album where any single song can be plucked from the record and admired as its own piece of music, but also one where each track is bolstered by its precise place in the larger tableau of the tracklist, fully realized by seamless sequencing through both crossfades and hard stops. It’s a release that announces itself so ardently the moment the low-end beat kicks in on opener “In the Flowers,” a starting point whose boldness carries right into the album’s runaway track “My Girls” in the form of a chipper synth arpeggiator and buoyant sentiments about providing for loved ones.
And that spirited presence from Avey Tare, Panda Bear and Geologist at the album’s beginning continues all throughout Merriweather Post Pavilion. “Summertime Clothes,” the band’s most straightforward pop song to that point, is made all the more rapturously energetic by Panda Bear’s shouted harmonizations with Avey Tare, and the track’s dynamic mixing makes the arrival of its chorus sound downright celebratory. Closer “Brother Sport” works in similar fashion, its synth swells lapping up the song with the repeated urgency of an alarm—rising in the mix before a shout from Panda Bear lets them dissipate in an instant. The record’s deeper cuts are just as rich to dig into, as well, especially “Taste,” with its multiple instrumental and synthetic loops floating in and out of each other.
There isn’t a single moment where Merriweather Post Pavilion’s crisp production quality wanes, nor one where the potent harmonies between Avey Tare and Panda Bear, as on “Also Frightened” and “No More Runnin’,” falter. If there is anything on the album that can serve as a comprehensive microcosm for Merriweather Post Pavilion’s quality, it’s the back-to-back heft of “Daily Routine” and “Bluish,” the former a Panda Bear-fronted track and the latter an Avey Tare cut. Where “Daily Routine” shines for its blisteringly sharp synth runs and off-kilter time signature before flipping into a patient ambience in its back half, “Bluish” is a relatively muted, directly romantic song that’s patient in its longing right from the start. By putting these two tracks next to each other, Merriweather Post Pavilion shows in miniature that it can perform in each of these modes without losing any of its luster—that it can veer from one sound to the next while still feeling entirely of a piece. There may not be much new to say about this album than has already been said, but that doesn’t negate just how much there is to love in Merriweather Post Pavilion, even over a decade after its release.
3. Sung Tongs (2004)
Before Animal Collective found breakthroughs in the widespread success of Merriweather Post Pavilion or even the possibilities afforded to them through Domino on Strawberry Jam, they found their earliest bout of acclaim in a simple formula that paid dividends: Avey Tare and Panda Bear playing acoustic guitars and overdubbing a number of warped samples and percussion tracks. That basic pitch makes up the core of Sung Tongs, a record that feels both like a natural progression from the group’s acoustic stylings on Campfire Songs and entirely its own product. It’s an imaginative reinvention of what an album this minimal can even sound like, and exceedingly special in Animal Collective’s discography for what it achieves.
Where Campfire Songs leaned into the intimacy of its recording, Sung Tongs often feels far more expansive than it actually is by virtue of its mixing and overdubs, as on the cheerful overlapping guitar parts and shouts that make up “Who Could Win A Rabbit.” The sheer number of vocal overlays in the second section of “Winters Love” gives off the impression of a song made by far more than the two people performing. This overdubbing trick makes so many of the songs on Sung Tongs feel all the more kinetic and alive—in the overwhelming cacophony that defines the loudest moments of the percussive “We Tigers,” in the swells of vocalizations that carry the sing-songy “Mouth Wooed Her,” and in the skipping strums and swirling voices on opener “Leaf House.”
Yet it’s the quietest and most melancholic moments on Sung Tongs, resting right alongside the more upbeat fare, that give the album its lasting emotional identity. The gorgeously slow-moving gentleness of “The Softest Voice,” following directly after two fast-paced opening songs, suggests the care and tenderness lurking behind even the record’s wildest passages. It’s an implication that bleeds over into the prelude of the following track, “Winters Love,” which starts with a muted guitar chord progression before plummeting headfirst back into exhilaration. Sung Tongs’ duality—pushing between youthful ecstasy and softer introspection—makes up the core dynamic of the album, which is realized to its fullest potential on centerpiece “Visiting Friends,” a 12-minute-long soundscape of compounding tracks, effects and samples set against distorted vocals repeating the same cadence, and the same two chords, strummed over and over. The effect is a profound abstraction of reflecting on time and the people who drift in and out of your life, settling in so gradually that you don’t realize its emotional grip on you, your own reminiscence overcoming what lyrics you can make out.
It’s moments like these that reveal the true power Sung Tongs holds over a listener—leaning into carefree childishness in melody and rhythm to capture the complicated tangle of feelings tied up in adolescence, aging and facing unforeseen shifts in life when entering adulthood. Like the best of Animal Collective’s music, Sung Tongs is not merely a collection of great songs—it’s a larger thematic statement on existential change, a grappling with time’s march through the evocations of the music itself. It’s a testament to Sung Tongs’ success that this resonance only grows the longer it lingers in one’s life, the distance one feels from those memories making the pangs of their sentiments all the sharper.
2. Feels (2005)
Feels took the top spot on early drafts of this list because of how thoroughly it feels like the epitome of Animal Collective—the quintessential release the group has put out to date. That last part is certainly true, as Feels embodies the zenith of AnCo’s work with live instrumentation, and is one of the few records where all four members appear (along with Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir on piano). And Feels is certainly one of the group’s most compact and complete statements as an album, as well, its songs as stellar and enduring individually as they are taken together. It’s no wonder that this record has emerged as a common fan favorite—it is, at once, pleasant, compelling, intricate and formidable, but never puts its formal experimentations above its purest delights.
The source of Feels’ greatest joys is its unorthodox, yet engrossing effects-laden guitar tuning—set to an out-of-tune piano. From the whine that starts the album on “Did You See the Words,” the guitars on Feels palpably buzz and hum like bugs in heavy summer air. The rattling of the single chord that makes up the first two minutes of “Banshee Beat” becomes second nature to the track so naturally that the chord’s eventual quiet change feels like a seismic shift. “Daffy Duck” moves from some of the record’s most delicate guitar work to notes so loud, they feel like they’re melting in the mix.
But like all of Animal Collective’s strongest records, Feels becomes an even greater triumph in its sequencing as an album. The record’s early stretch is all euphoric love songs, with the embrace of messy amorous desire in “Did You See the Words” setting the tone for the record’s first half. The spring in the step of “Grass” gives way to impassioned screams and rapid-fire expressions of attraction—emotion so positive in its outpouring that it demands to be expressed as boldly as possible. But then, following the album’s most uninhibited elation on “The Purple Bottle,” the tone shifts. An autoharp, unheard before on the record, enters the fray. “Bees” begins, its lyrics presaging omens of something coming, swarming suddenly. Then the guitars of “Banshee Beat” slowly fade in, signaling the bright feelings and lovestruck sentiments that were pervasive have come to an end. Only closer “Turn Into Something,” with its optimistic outlook in the face of change, shifts the mood once more, ending the album with an embrace of the uncertain future.
Even in that back half of the album, Feels never fully wallows in dejection like an album covering this emotional arc so easily could. Like much of AnCo’s music, it finds beauty even within that distress, like in the moments of vocal catharsis that burst through later passages of “Banshee Beat,” or the brief harmonic crescendo that crashes into “Daffy Duck.” And it’s that outlook on beauty, along with the record’s idiosyncratic musical approach, that allows Feels to transcend the trappings of a stereotypical love/breakup album and truly resonate—within Animal Collective’s catalog and beyond. In a way, the most significant song on the album is perhaps one of its most unconventional: “Loch Raven.” Replacing the sounds of guitars with an overblown, twinkling synth loop, the song gracefully floats on Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s separate vocal parts—the former working in folkloric metaphor and the latter in unyielding devotion in spite of hardships. The track could very easily fall into outright melancholy, but it becomes something far more otherworldly by lingering on the melodically sublime—an effect emblematic of the record’s power at large.
While Animal Collective continued to make exceptional music following Feels, there’s a case to be made that their songwriting never quite recaptured this same kind of emotional release.
1. Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished (2000)
Do you remember what it was like when you first realized your childhood as you knew it was drifting away? Or when you first became aware you could never return to being the kid you once were? These are the precise moments that Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished incomparably captures.
If Sung Tongs is the apex of Animal Collective’s portrayal of feeling childhood start to slip away into memory, then their debut Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished is the most uncomfortably vivid rendering of the messiness of youth and adolescence the band are capable of making, brought into being as only those living it in the moment can. It’s a raw, chaotic, often viscerally unpleasant album to listen to, one that could only be made by young musicians in the eye of the hurricane of nascent adulthood, experimenting however they can to depict what they are feeling. But more than that, Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished is an album whose abrasions and harsh production are wholly necessary to expose the bittersweet beauty in a moment slipping away even as it’s being recorded.
The album’s opening moments are crucial to setting its overall tone—a playful whisper of childish secrecy, before a wave of high-frequency noise crashes over the listener. Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s utilization of this form of noise is multifaceted: For the first three tracks, especially, its prominence serves as a bracing maneuver, acclimating those hearing the album to the sonic palette in which the band are working. In doing so, however, Avey Tare and Panda Bear ensnare the listener in this abrasion’s thematic purpose—the nature of this sound itself is a mimicry of the types of high frequencies that get lost to the human ear with age, an experience that fades the further one gets from their youth. And by placing the sharpest of these sounds right at the start of Spirit, Animal Collective construct the album as an auditory passage through aging in miniature. The noise that once seemed so loud and so pervasive fades, the gaps in time between its appearances growing longer and longer. Childhood disappears before your eyes while listening to Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished.
This, of course, would not nearly muster as much potency as it does if the songs themselves did not meet the lofty heights of the album’s thematic leanings, but many of the cuts on Spirit are tiny marvels in and of themselves. Early highlight “April And The Phantom” alternates between gently twinkling melodies reflecting eager youthful whimsy, and noisy screams portraying strangers who look dangerous and unfamiliar through the eyes of a kid. “Penny Dreadfuls” takes the most spare approach on the record to the most devastating effect—its repeating piano chords become a funerary march, slowly building to the outcry of a confused, heartbroken child. But “Chocolate Girl” might be the single strongest cut on the album, steadfastly set on its sweet blend of piano and synthesizer, yielding only to let Avey Tare’s soft acoustic guitar and Panda Bear’s “perfect percussion” (as the liner notes describe) shine through.
What’s especially remarkable about this debut is how Spirit’s instrumental prowess is accompanied by Avey Tare’s lyrical deftness at such a young age. His lyrical fixations on nostalgia and reminiscence are clearly established on this first album, and his narratives display an impressive vividness. The aforementioned “Penny Dreadfuls” is the obvious standout in this field—a track Avey Tare had written at the age of 16 that has the scene-setting detail work and emotional arc of a short story. The point-of-view switching throughout “April And The Phantom” mirrors the track’s own instrumental shifts, lending each character their own musical identity. And buried within the echolocation-esque screeches of “Bat You’ll Fly” is an understated thesis statement for the album—describing the death of “the child,” but reassuring that one “can still think back to the wild” to reclaim a piece of the happiness that came from being the child who no longer remains.
All these elements converge with stunning finality and ambition on the album’s closer, “Alvin Row,” a multi-part suite that depicts Spirit’s entire thematic arc in miniature across nearly 13 minutes. The song’s early sections are full of infantile tantrums, formless percussion and hissing squeals of noise, until the track straightens itself out, as if learning to behave. Lyrics about banging erasers in classrooms precede sudden fortissimos of piano and drums—the rebellious lashing out of childhood frustrations and emotions one is still learning to control. But then—with a cathartic shout from Avey Tare—there comes a rush of freedom, steadier than before, but liberating nonetheless, before the song settles into a more ordered refrain for the back half that follows. The child has made peace with the future ahead of him. As the final sample of the album implies, the youthful voice he once held may be gone, but the years ahead no longer look as frightening as they once did.
When discussing Feels earlier, I noted how that record could be considered the most apt encapsulation of the band—in sound, in lineup, in comprehensive fulfillment of the record’s aims, and in reflecting the ethos of Animal Collective itself. In truth, Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished is just as fit for that superlative, but for entirely different reasons. In its own way, Spirit is perhaps the defining Animal Collective album for how much it accomplishes with its modest means. It’s a threadbare DIY project made by two people through and through. Yet there’s something intensely intimate and cooperative about the album—two friends, working in tandem, in separate roles, but reinforcing each other’s strengths by virtue of their presence. Making noise with the passion of friends messing around to find something worth developing together and sharing, and discovering the latent beauty that rests within.
Natalie Marlin is a music and film writer who previously wrote as a staff writer at Allston Pudding. She also regularly appears on the Indieheads Podcast, co-hosts the podcast’s Animal Collective Discog Breakdown, and writes for their newsletter Soft Sounds. Follow her on Twitter at @NataliesNotInIt.