An album of boundless ambition...

While already regarded as a potential album of the year in some critical quarters, Animal Collective’s ninth studio effort is certain to split opinion amongst the avant-garde outfit’s hardcore audience.

This, though, is nothing new. Since breaking through, to some extent, with 2004’s stripped-down ‘Sung Tongs’ album – their first to receive a widespread UK release via the FatCat label – the Baltimore-spawned collective have set out to render all expectations redundant from record to record, with one rarely having too much in common with its immediate predecessor.

The step from ‘Sung Tongs’ to 2005’s ‘Feels’ was substantial, a fuller sound filling out a series of songs focusing on the universal emotion of love; likewise, the progression from ‘Feels’ to their eighth album (and first for Domino), 2007’s ‘Strawberry Jam’, was evident to even the most fair-weather of followers – here, the band were adapting their outwardly awkward rhythms for a mainstream beginning to take notice, and the result was a beguiling collection that earned accolades galore.

In short, Animal Collective never sit still; their music is theirs alone, influential but impossible to imitate like more-conventional indie-rock. It’s instantly recognisable for its uniqueness, a mark of the truly inspired. The band’s members – Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist and Deakin – seem to have their own language, one that’s understandable to the heart, but the head’s often bamboozled. You let it take you where it will, rather than direct it via iPod shuffles or stereo skips.

‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ is, by Panda Bear’s own admission, their best-recorded album yet, and it’s true that there’s a richness to the sound that occasionally lapsed on their last album, where shrieks and wails sometimes chilled rather too close to the bone. It’s also their longest since debut long-player ‘Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’re Vanished’, but no single track meanders meaninglessly; instead, ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ is fractured into constituent pieces perfectly formed, the longest, ‘Brother Sport’, a second shy of the six-minute mark. The album’s coherence is highly commendable, with only the aforementioned number feeling a little awkward after the more natural-feeling closer, ‘No More Runnin’.

‘In The Flowers’ opens, triggering a series of segues that signal a record conceived as a whole, rather than individual arrangements shackled in the studio. Voices rise, china-delicate, and hand claps alert attentions to an inevitable explosion of sound seconds away; sure enough, two-minutes-thirty into ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ its makers come alive, galloping instrumentation dizzying the listener, hypnotically drawing them in deeper. The transition to the ‘You Got The Love’-echoing ‘My Girls’ is seamless, the album’s flow already established – it’s chaptered, but the tale’s one that doesn’t waver throughout the course.

‘My Girl’ and ‘Brother Sport’ are among the most instant-fix cuts here, the tracks most likely to be selected for any radio play, but ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ is remarkable for its lack of clear standout moments. This is no criticism; rather, the consistency is maintained so well that critical ears are not attracted back to single numbers. To get the very most of out this album, it requires playing from beginning to end (okay, that last track is a bit of a shoehorned-in exception), so that senses can properly be stimulated by music that is warming and comforting, bombastic when serenity’s there for smashing, and quite otherworldly in its atmosphere.

Recorded as a trio, with Deakin absent for the time being, ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ is titled to represent its makers’ attempts to conjure an amazing outdoor listening experience. Anyone who saw the band in 2008 (these eyes and ears witnessed such an audio-visual feast in Barcelona) will already vouch that Animal Collective are a live band of enormous ability, but here they’ve produced a record that sounds, even through a laptop, like it’d be huge in the live environment. The builds – the way the album shifts its weight to rise and fall like a giant stirring from slumber beneath some fairytale bridge – are remarkable, each electrifying the skin; the blending of vocal harmonies with sweeping drones of sublime ambient noise is impeccable. The whole is far, far greater than the sum of its myriad parts, entirely intoxicating where other albums in Animal Collective’s canon merely had the listener feeling a little tipsy.

Is it their best-ever album, as some are saying? Considering the band’s prolific nature – nine albums in nine years – it’s surely too early to say a high watermark has been reached, but ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ does lay down a considerable challenge to the year’s artists of expectation. Here, Animal Collective have crafted a piece of art that’s as near-flawless as the most sparkling diamond: if a powerful microscope was brought into the equation no doubt specks of imperfection would be evident, but to the naked eye there’s not one misstep worth flagging. That’s if there’s one at all.

Some long-term admirers will moan it’s not as effervescent as older records, as vivacious of experimentation and bucking of precedent; that its tone remains one that’s reluctant to stray for nearly an hour, until ‘Brother Sport’. But ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ is, because of this adherence to a direction, Animal Collective’s most satisfying release yet. It teases and tickles, but delivers too. It’s a float out to sea, an endless horizon, postcard tropicalia on a compact disc. Will it take them properly overground, and onto the radars of those whose idea of an alternative band is The Killers? Probably not, but here’s hoping its inevitable multiple rave reviews earn Animal Collective a bevy of fans anew, coming together to celebrate a career of boundless creativity.

There’s no band out there like Animal Collective except Animal Collective, and if that’s not reason enough to give ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ a go, I haven’t the foggiest what is.


Join us on VERO

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.

Follow Clash: