Animal Collective Rekindle the Light on Time Skiffs

On their first studio album in six years, the legendary neo-psych group make peace with present-day anxieties while paying tribute to their past

Music Reviews Animal Collective
Animal Collective Rekindle the Light on Time Skiffs

During a 2017 Reddit AMA promoting his solo album Eucalyptus, Animal Collective’s primary vocalist David Portner (aka Avey Tare) was asked what his most memorable moment practicing with the group was, answering, “the session where we put ‘Banshee Beat’ together. I just remember us all smiling and feeling like we had something really sweet happening.” Even from an outsider’s perspective, this is easy to understand—Animal Collective’s music has always maintained a heavy focus on the actual process of art-making and the sparks of the divine that flicker in intense moments of creative intimacy. Off 2005’s opus Feels, “Banshee Beat,” a vivid explosion of lovelorn melancholy and catharsis, serves as a reflection of the magic that lived within the band throughout this period. Avey Tare and Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) had both started serious relationships; the band had begun a string of critically acclaimed albums off the back of 2004’s Sung Tongs, and were inventing new ways of incorporating unusual sounds and dimensions into their work, including using the audio of a band member pissing as the opening to a track. Utilizing these new areas of experimentation, Feels functioned as a clear maturation for the band, a shift away from the carefully organized chaos of 2002’s Danse Manatee or the playful exuberance of 2003’s Ark and Campfire Songs, and towards the more traditional pop structures that would come to define their later work.

I have been accused in the past of being over-dramatic about Animal Collective. It’s not necessarily an untrue sentiment, but one that’s easily defended: Few bands have ever been as radically game-changing as Animal Collective managed to be from album to album in the 2000s. With each new era, the group became more fluent in their own developing musical language, tackling themes of nostalgia, divorce and parenthood through powerful drums, hypnotic patterns and plenty of layered, Beach Boys-inspired harmonies. Yet as their star went supernova with 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, their blog-pop-era ubiquity slowly morphed the band’s reputation into a “tries psychedelics once” punchline, as added pressure on the hit album’s follow-up took its toll on the band. With 2012’s Centipede Hz. and 2016’s Painting With, the artistic intensity that makes the band compelling was still present (albeit not as potently), but there was the unmistakable feeling that they were no longer having fun—like the glow that encompassed their earlier work had dimmed, leaving them to make records because they had to, but not from a place of genuine interest.

Throughout this period, the framework of Animal Collective in the public eye shifted dramatically. After exiting the band for Painting With, guitarist Josh Dibb (Deakin) released his solo debut, the staggeringly beautiful Sleep Cycle, while Panda Bear famously collaborated with artists like Daft Punk and Solange, and Avey Tare furthered his solo career with two albums. Their ambitions as Animal Collective started to gear towards scoring visual projects and creating location-based music, until a global pandemic reshaped the way they—and all working musicians—were able to function. Though no strangers to working on music remotely (the original demos for Merriweather were composed over email), the band were met with the challenge of living up to their legacy while facing an uncertain future for the music industry.

The result is Time Skiffs, in which Animal Collective find a way to make peace with the swarms of present-day adulthood anxieties while paying tribute to their past. A far cry from the rushed, electronic dirges of their previous album, Time Skiffs finds the band taking their time and doing what they do best: allowing space, texture and infectious melody to whisk the listener away to various sensory destinations, all with the wisdom and confidence of a group who have weathered life’s storms, and recognize the opportunity for joy and growth that resides within them.

This maturity is recognizable in lead single “Prester John,” a decidedly simple and straightforward song (by Animal Collective standards) that combines the voices of Avey Tare, Panda Bear and Deakin into a powerful harmonic hydra. The melodies are uncomplicated, but the emotional weight lurking behind the song’s groove is omnipresent, making the song’s uplifting lyrics and glittering arpeggios feel not only more impactful, but also deeply intentional.

“Cherokee,” in which Avey Tare narrates a road trip through the North Carolina countryside, operates as a unique foil to songs in the band’s catalog that find them fatigued by commuting, such as “On a Highway” or “New Town Burnout.” On a lighthearted, relaxed groove that intercepts a classic Animal Collective high-energy breakdown halfway through, the listener is taken from the former Black Mountain art school to a gathering of people, all with the unmistakable feeling like there’s somewhere else they’d rather be.

There’s a lot of looking backwards on Time Skiffs—literally, if you count the ends of the “Prester John” and “Walker” videos. The latter song, constructed from xylophones and Brian Weitz (Geologist) on hurdy gurdy, functions as a tribute to the late avant-garde hero Scott Walker, whom Panda Bear has notably sampled in the past and considers a great influence on his work. Additionally, the band have hidden several references to their own past work throughout the album, such as the “Also Frightened”-evoking ending to the extremely catchy “Car Keys,” or the distinct inclusion of a very recognizable arpeggio in Animal Collective’s discography that closes out the record in its final few seconds.

At worst, one could argue that the sound palette comprising Time Skiffs doesn’t allow the album to serve as a vessel for Animal Collective’s typically visceral and surprising styles of songwriting, but this claim is countered by “Strung With Everything,” one of the most exciting, ecstatic and enchanting songs the band have released in years. Slowly evolving from a sort of Hawaiian-flavored mix of harmonies, the track morphs into an impassioned explosion of keys, vocals and an evolution of Panda Bear’s inimitable, passionately intense style of drumming. The scene is familiar for fans of the band: Amidst a raucous display of joyful instrumentation, wistful voices build into harmonies while Avey Tare paints a picture of the sky expressing itself in different colors and shades, finding a unity within himself in that dynamic presentation.

Closing out the album, “Royal and Desire” finds Deakin taking lead vocals for only the second time in the band’s history, his alluring baritone contributing to the album’s elegant, captivating final notes. It’s a grand, emotional conclusion with vocals that are both heavy and lush, all buoyed by a hopeful lyricism that feels genuinely nourishing in these dreadful days.

It makes sense to want to compare Time Skiffs to Feels—here we see the four members of Animal Collective once again convening to create straightforward instrumentation for a chaotic era, beset by personal and existential struggles in a new world, yet channeling and transforming them into songs of immense, heartfelt splendor. It’s always been about the process of making music for this band, and after a decade of critical busts and two years of a global pandemic, the passion that’s present here begs the belief that they’ve finally regained that unbridled joy, once again finding something really sweet happening amongst themselves.

Jason Friedman is a freelance writer from Philadelphia that is also a spooky ghost.

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