Clash Magazine's Album of 2009

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
Top 40 albums of 2009
It's that time of the year again with voices raised across the land in argument of 2009's best album.

Prompting much 'discussion' in the Clash Magazine and ClashMusic.com offices, a winner was finally chosen, Animal Collective's 'Merriweather Post Pavillion'. Read our appraisal of the album below.

Read about the albums in our top ten HERE, those just outside the top ten HERE, into the twenties HERE and finally from 30 to 40 HERE.

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Animal Collective ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’
(Domino)




Not a week goes by without the emergence of further evidence supporting the decline of the music industry. The problems facing popular music are, supposedly, manifold. Revenues from album sales are nose-diving because everyone’s downloading tracks illegally these days. The live music scene - the recent buoyancy of which was supposedly keeping the entire industry afloat - is showing signs of stagnation. And even The X Factor has become a target for ire: what should be enjoyed simply as a light-hearted entertainment show is instead seen by many (oh, okay then, Sting) as a force for evil, eroding the worth of ‘proper’ performers.

But what’s been overlooked amid all the doom and gloom is that the quality of contemporary music (i.e. the important bits like the melodies, the arrangements, the singing and the instrumentation) is very, very high indeed. You might even argue that we’ve never had it so good. 2009 has produced exceedingly fine albums from Wild Beasts, Fuck Buttons, Grizzly Bear, The XX and HEALTH to name but five. So, while it would be an exaggeration to call this a banner year without precedent, it’s fair to say that 2009’s best albums would hold their own against anything produced in the last forty years.

Is the inventiveness of contemporary music in part attributable to modern methods of consuming music? Anyone with a computer and a speedy Internet connection can download the entire Kraftwerk back catalogue overnight. This level of accessibility may not be good news for EMI’s balance sheets, but could it bring creative benefits to those artists who are seeking fresh inspiration? The answer to that question lies beyond the scope of this article (in other words, Clash doesn’t really know), but it is definitely worth pondering nonetheless.

The most inspired of all the albums released in 2009 is ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’, the splendid eighth studio LP from Animal Collective. Upon its release in January, critics were falling over themselves to find new ways of saying, “This album is really very good.” It’s likely that Clash’s list won’t be the only end-of-year poll that ‘Merriweather’ tops. Does a heavily-decorated band like Animal Collective ever get ‘praise fatigue?’ “No,” is the reassuringly non-complacent answer from Noah Lennox (AKA Animal Collective’s Panda Bear), speaking over the phone from his home in Lisbon. “I mean, it always feels good but at the same time I think you have to take praise or criticism with a pinch of salt. I feel getting too much attention can start to mess with your mind a little… As far as saying [the album is] the number one thing or anything like that - well, I don’t pay as much attention.”

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‘Merriweather’ is a very modern-sounding record. The term ‘modern-sounding’ is likely to set alarm bells ringing in the consciousness of many a music lover, suggesting as it does the kind of atonal, self-consciously ‘cutting edge’ ragbag of ideas that would only ever get played inside a Shoreditch club. Rather, ‘Merriweather’ is a ‘modern’ work in the sense that you couldn’t imagine it having been made even as recently as, say, five years ago. A few discernible musical influences emerge during the course of its eleven tracks: you can hear trace elements of The Beach Boys in the harmonies, the synth pattern of Frankie Knuckles’ club classic ‘Your Love’ in the extended intro of ‘My Girls’, maybe even a little Fleetwood Mac in the AOR-inspired melodies of tracks like ‘Bluish’. But these occasional flashes of familiarity are subsumed by sounds that wouldn’t normally end up in what is nominally an ‘indie rock’ release: deep bass pulses, luminous synth stabs and even the occasional rave horn.

To add to the record’s zeitgeist-massaging status, ‘Merriweather’’s first single ‘My Girls’ was adopted by some as a recession-friendly anthem in light of its ostensibly anti-materialistic lyrics: “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things,” sings Panda Bear in the chorus. “I just want four walls and adobe slats for my girls.” Was it Lennox’s intention to write the first post-credit crunch song? “I wish I could say I was that globally minded! But I guess it’s more of a self-centred sort of thing; it was really just my desire on a basic level to own my own place and kind of provide a safe house for my family and the people I care about. I thought that was at once a kind of weird materialistic thing but at the same time a noble thing.”

‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ completes Animal Collective’s journey from the short-lived ‘freak folk’ scene (best heard on 2004’s ‘Sung Tongs’ album) to their current position in the vanguard of contemporary alternative music. Along the way they’ve grown more and more adept at writing fully-fledged songs: 2005’s ‘Feels’ featured an expanded breadth of instrumentation alongside a smidgen of screaming; its 2007 follow-up ‘Strawberry Jam’ added a measure of tunefulness without sacrificing the screaming. ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ is more approachable still: it boasts choruses (the one on ‘Summertime Clothes’ being the pick of the bunch) and, in ‘My Girls’, one of the greatest, most repeat-playable tracks of the decade; screaming is conspicuous by its absence. That’s not to say that any of ‘Merriweather’’s eleven songs is likely to be played on a piano in a wine bar any time soon - something like ‘Daily Routine’ is as oblique as anything from their back catalogue. But it’s the kind of album that can be recommended to friends without any hesitant provisos. To appreciate just how far Animal Collective have come in the last five years, try listening to ‘Merriweather’ immediately after ‘Sung Tongs’: the effect is quite jarring. Noah Lennox isn’t having any of this, though: he sees those two albums as “kindred spirits in a way. Dave and I sing together the most on those two more than any other.”

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“I feel getting too much attention can start to mess with your mind a little.”

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The ‘Dave’ to which Lennox refers is David Portner, AKA Avey Tare, Animal Collective’s other main songwriter. One of the many joys of listening to ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ is hearing the complementary differences between the two writers’ approaches. Lennox’s songs, while always tuneful, seem unconcerned with formalities, while Portner’s numbers appear more classically-minded as a result of their easily-identifiable bridges, choruses and middle eights. It’s as if Lennox and Portner are behaving like Lennon and McCartney in The Beatles’ later years - each writes songs in isolation in a game of musical one-upmanship. But that’s not quite the case with Animal Collective. “The skeleton of the song and basic structure is usually done by one person and maybe the words by one person and even the soul of the song too,” explains Lennox, “but really the arrangement and the meat and the potatoes of the song are done when we’re all together - everyone adds their own thing to the song. They put their own stamp on it. When a song is done it’s really the result of work that we’ve all put into it. And that’s true of all the songs - once they’re finished they belong to all of us, equally.”

‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ makes a strong case for the album’s continuing relevance as an art form. For a start, it’s expertly sequenced: the hysterical shower of keyboards that arrives halfway through opener ‘In The Flowers’ gives the album the perfect lift-off, while the Afro-influenced closer ‘Brother Sport’ sees the album samba-ing joyously into the sunset. In addition, the album possesses the kind of iconic artwork that’s best appreciated across the vast expanse of a record sleeve. It’s a piece of colourful op-art whose effect can only be described as ‘wobbly’. “We had this science magazine that we got at an airport before we flew out to Athens where we mixed the record,” says Lennox. “One of the features in the magazine was about optical illusions and the neurosciences associated with that. This Japanese psychologist [Akiyoshi Kitaoka] had developed this pattern that looks as if it’s wiggling and we all really liked it and it became an emblem of the music because it was always sitting there in the house where we mixed the record.”

‘Merriweather’ is, then, best appreciated as a complete physical artefact rather than a collection of intangible MP3s. Just as the splurgy cover of My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’ LP perfectly matched the amorphous nature of its musical contents, ‘Merriweather’ sounds like the artwork looks: dense, vaguely futuristic and - let’s not be coy about this - more than a little druggy. To his credit, Lennox seems to know what Clash is getting at. “It [the artwork] was definitely a very conscious decision - to me that’s what the cover’s there to do. The cover is the first thing you see when you approach a record; before you’ve heard the music you see these images. It’s like they’re hardwired into your brain - there’s a harmony between the images and the music.”

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‘Merriweather’ may not have conquered the world, but it’s been the band’s biggest commercial success by some distance. It even breached the top twenty of America’s Billboard album chart, reaching number thirteen. “I’m really blown away by the amount of success that we’ve had,” gushes Lennox. “I can’t quite figure it out… I mean, we were really pleased with the record but then we’ve been pleased with records we’ve made before, but that kind of chart success came out of nowhere.”

As we’ve seen, received wisdom has concluded that current patterns of music consumption can only have a negative effect on artists’ livelihoods. But it could be argued that the dominance of the Internet has benefitted many alternative acts, allowing them to achieve levels of success that would have been unattainable in the Eighties and Nineties. Lennox reckons Animal Collective are one of those acts. “I would say the Internet made it possible for the connection between bands and fans to become really immediate and accessible. It’s a complicated situation and there are positives and negatives to it. One of the positives is that people who might be interested in our music can make that connection really easily whereas before maybe it would have to be a word-of-mouth thing.”

‘Merriweather’ has won lots of new fans for Animal Collective in the UK, many of whom might have dismissed the band’s earlier material as, well, a bit of a racket. But those who come to the band’s gigs expecting to hear the likes of ‘My Girls’ and ‘Summertime Clothes’ replicated faithfully on stage have been disappointed. Accordingly, the band’s UK dates earlier in the year were met with decidedly mixed notices, in contrast to the unanimously rapturous praise bestowed on ‘Merriweather’. Noah Lennox recognises this. “Playing live [in the UK] is still kind of a crapshoot. We’ve toured a lot there and I feel like it started to get better [around the time of ‘Feels’] and the energy of the shows improved a little bit, but then this record came out and there’s a lot of people who had only heard our music through that. And our live shows are quite a different thing. It’s maybe a more difficult thing to swallow.”

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“I’m really blown away by the amount of success that we’ve had... I can’t quite figure it out.”

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This is, however, a minor blip on what’s been a triumphant year for Animal Collective. We won’t be hearing as much from them in 2010: Lennox says the band will be taking a break once they’ve completed their world tour in Australia and New Zealand. There is, however, a new five-track EP, ‘Fall Be Kind’, (released on 14th December) to keep fans occupied for a little while longer. The EP consists of “songs we didn’t think worked once we had done the initial run-through - they were the songs which we didn’t think worked as well as a group as the others,” says Lennox. “But they worked really well as their own little group.”

Both Portner and Lennox have side-projects to keep themselves occupied when their regular band’s not in full swing. Lennox trades under his Panda Bear stage name; in 2007 he released ‘Person Pitch’ - an album on which he applied the drip-feed dynamics of techno to the harmonic sumptuousness of Sixties psych-pop to amazing effect. Lennox will spend much of 2010 working on its follow-up, for which Lennox will be abandoning the sample-based approach of ‘Person Pitch’: “I’m trying not to use any samples at all. So it’ll at least be different in that respect.”

So, then, Noah Lennox appears unconcerned by the supposedly imminent downfall of popular music. It seems as if he’s far too busy making kaleidoscopically brilliant music to worry about falling A&R budgets and the need for a new, sustainable business model. And that, in the final reckoning, might be the music industry’s saviour: as long as there are albums as good as ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ around, surely everything will work out just fine.

Words by Christopher Monk

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Read about the rest of the albums that make up our Top40, the top ten HERE, those just outside the top ten HERE, into the twenties HERE and finally from 30 to 40 HERE.

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