Animal Collective don’t need to prove anything. They have a very strong case for being the best band of the 2000s. If you’re a fan, you likely acknowledge that Sung Tongs (2004), Feels (2005), Strawberry Jam (2007), and Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009) are all perfect or almost-perfect albums, each one with a distinctive sound indicating that no matter what skin Animal Collective takes on, they can make something incredible out of it and still sound unlike any other band out there. Their latest record, Centipede Hz (2012), an album with some tremendous ideas but an uncharacteristically large amount of bad ones, marked their first truly divisive record in nearly a decade. It was always going to be interesting to see how Animal Collective followed up their first (relative) critical flop.
The early buzz after Animal Collective streamed Painting With at Baltimore-Washington International Airport four months prior its release suggested that it sounded closer to Merriweather Post Pavilion than Centipede Hz. This is true, sort of. Without Deakin, the act’s part-time fourth member who lent Centipede Hz its rockier (and squelch-ier) elements, the group is back down to the trio that made Merriweather: Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear), David Portner (aka Avey Tare) and Brian Weitz (aka Geologist). This means the 808s and the heavy harmonies are back, but harmonies and electronics alone did not make Merriweather a classic record, which Painting With makes abundantly clear. It’s apparent after about 10 minutes that rather than follow up Centipede Hz with a creative, challenging record, Animal Collective took the most straightforward route available to them and are resting on their laurels.
Painting With lacks the attention to detail that has always been Animal Collective’s strength. With dynamics, lyrical specificity and a commitment to atmosphere, the group transcended their makeup as hippie noise-makers to touch surreal, beautiful places. On Painting With, the group eschews all of that, instead opting for a very dry, upfront production style. Gone is the dynamic interplay between Lennox and Portner, their voices instead mushed together into the same signature harmony Lennox has milked for his last few solo releases. Gone are their distinctive songwriting styles, their talents instead put to use making the same medium-loud, medium-tempo bop 12 times over. Other than “Floridada,” the lead single that frustratingly suggested that the record would be a mash of their underrated Water Curses EP (2008) and Merriweather, the album’s distinctive moments are few: an anachronous Golden Girls sample, a song about bagels, the “On Delay” hook that barely stands out from the rest. After about 10 listens, it’s still difficult to pair a song with its title.
To say that Painting With sounds like Animal Collective is a bit damning. It sounds like Animal Collective in the way a legion of small-time blog bands in the early 2010s sounded like Animal Collective, groups like Keepaway or Dinosaur Feathers who could do a decent facsimile of the Animal Collective sound but lacked the intangibles to garner their acclaim. One particular group Painting With brings to mind is Alvin Band, a little-known act that released an irreverent album about Mario Kart called Rainbow Road in 2012. It’s a tacky record that apes Noah and Dave’s trademark harmonies in the service of songs about marijuana and Bowser’s Castle, yet I find myself wanting to play that record whenever I try to work through Painting With. Even if it’s inherently silly, at least is has tone. One of the most thrilling parts of Animal Collective’s glorious 2000s run was watching their evolution from young hippies murmuring a childlike inquisitiveness with the world to full-fledged adults begging “just a sec more in my bed.” In that sense they were a wonderful band to grow up with; wherever they were in their lives seemed to inform where fans were in their lives. But whatever poetry there is to be found in Painting With is mostly muddied, the lyrics lent little weight, delivered in the same frenetic speed so that they feel almost inconsequential. The tone of Painting With is “This is another Animal Collective record.”
If Painting With were a person, it’d be that student who can ace everything but is perfectly, maddeningly happy coasting with a B-minus. It sounds tossed off, like a bunch of Panda Bear b-sides that didn’t make it onto last year’s Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper. And while in truth, there is nothing inherently terrible about Painting With—it’s generally a pleasant record by most standards—it is the first Animal Collective record that feels like it has no place in this world, neither in their narrative or in relation to indie rock in general, which is striking, considering the tremendous influence they once had. Instead Painting With is a record that just “is,” not very noteworthy, the band nowhere close to fulfilling its potential. The scariest thing Painting With leaves behind is the feeling that Animal Collective think that’s perfectly fine.