Animal Collective’s best music has often sounded as though it were made underwater. “Loch Raven,” from 2005’s Feels, was like a secret choir emanating from a shallow pond; 2009’s “Brothersport” erupts and shakes with oceanic cacophony. “The Softest Voice,” from 2004’s Sung Tongs, even employed sounds resembling frog croaks as auxiliary percussion. (No frogs were harmed in the making of this freak-folk breakthrough LP.)
With Tangerine Reef, Animal Collective’s second audiovisual album, the band leans deep into its nautical tendencies, crafting a surreal soundtrack for “avant-garde coral macro-videography” (read: underwater footage of coral reefs).
The album was made in collaboration with the art-science partnership of marine biologist Colin Foord and musician J.D. McKay, who together call themselves Coral Morphologic and have filmed the underwater expanse for institutions like the BBC and National Geographic Channel. Sharing an enthusiasm for coral excursions, Animal Collective bonded with the duo on land and sea (Deakin is an avid scuba diver) and wound up collaborating on a site-specific performance, commissioned by the Borscht Film Festival, in honor of “the cosmic synchronicity of sex on the reef.” This makes a strange kind of sense—producing music on commission is both creatively and financially logical for festival-level indie acts, and Animal Collective was never going to be the one to record a song for, say, the Gilmore Girls reboot.
Hallucinatory and dense, Tangerine Reef is the full-length consummation of the Coral Morphologic collaboration. The project’s inherent open-endedness allows it to be whatever fans want it to be. Is it the official follow-up to 2016’s frankly dismal Painting With? Sure… if you want. A one-off squiggle in the Animal Collective discography? Could be that, too. A geyser of trippy imagery to queue up on the projection screen after a few bong hits? Yeah, of course.
Tangerine Reef is best appreciated with that visual accompaniment, which is like if an iTunes visualizer went on a diving expedition. Material like “Buxom” and “Jake and Me” is woozy and expansive—watercolor synth pads, murmured vocals that float in a foggy space between melody and discernible speech—and somehow makes sense when paired with colorful time-lapse aquascapes: neon greens, bloody reds, brilliant blues. The fluorescent coral is in a constant state of movement. Sometimes it looks like it’s dancing. Other times, it quivers and sways, a mournful choreography.
Accompanying this swaying sealife is the most abstract, shapeless music Animal Collective has released in well over a decade. There’s none of the overstuffed synthetic drum programming that grew noxious by Painting With. Songs here float into lengthy ambient drifts, like Here Comes the Indian without the raucous campfire screeches. The final few tracks in particular—“Lundsten Coral,” “Palythoa”—contain ample open space, evoking something as vast and unfathomable as the ocean itself.
Recorded by Deakin, Avey Tare, and Geologist, Tangerine Reef is also, for better or worse, the first Animal Collective album recorded without Panda Bear, whose melodic gift is frequently missed here. (He’s not gone for good, thankfully.) The band’s best work could seem self-indulgent to non-fans but retained a sense of melodic purpose. “Airpipe (To A New Transition),” which sputters like a psychedelic engine malfunction for six full minutes, is merely queasy; “Coral Realization” is worse.
The overarching uneasiness here is a sense of profound ecoanxiety. The album is intended to commemorate the 2018 International Year of the Reef, which celebrates the wonders of marine life but also raises the alarm about its existential threats as the climate warms. Avey Tare’s vocals rise into an agitated urgency on “Hip Sponge.” “The time is now / Now is the time,” he warns, over and over. We should heed that warning and act. Or get stoned and stare at technicolor coral for an hour.