PRIMAL Elements

I got quite lucky the first time I saw Animal Collective perform live. It was November 21, 2005, one day after my birthday, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, where I lived for six confusing, intoxicating months after graduating from Flagler College earlier in the year. The music of the Baltimore-born foursome, consisting of childhood friends Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox, Dave “Avey Tare” Portner, Josh “Deakin” Dibb, and Brian “Geologist” Weitz, made little sense given the wider world of white-guy indie rock that was so popular then.

Five albums of densely packed electro-experimentalism — 2000 debut Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished, followed by Danse Manatee, Campfire Songs, Here Comes the Indian, and Sung Tongs — mixed confrontational walls of dissonant sound with ecstasy-inducing, Beach Boys-inspired melodies. Some songs (like early blogosphere favorite “Slippi”) still hurt to listen to all these years later, while others (like the ten-minute “Queen in My Pictures”) were early indicators that Animal Collective could one day translate meandering sonic squiggles into festival-headlining, arena-packing transcendence.

Back to November 21, 2005, the tail end of Animal Collective’s early period, when they still donned animal masks and face paint to maintain onstage anonymity. Only weeks before the show, their sixth full-length, Feels, had been released (as usual, on the band’s own Paw Tracks label), and in that pre-social media age, it felt revelatory to be overwhelmed by the propulsive whelps of “Grass” and the exotic textures of “Bees” for the first time. I danced with abandon, probably for the first time in my life, at that show. And since I fled San Francisco for the comforts of my Florida home just a few weeks later, the moment — intimate venue, unfamiliar city, epic clouds of marijuana smoke, face-painted weirdos losing their shit on various psychedelics, Panda Bear and Avey Tare’s frantic call-and-response vocal cubism — still seems revelatory.

But enough about me. Feels was the album that catapulted Animal Collective to mainstream stardom in the eyes of thousands of awestruck music fans. Their ascendance matched up with the mid-2000s explosion of outdoor festivals, and every fan, critic, and promoter that saw the band live fell all over themselves to buy the 2007 album Strawberry Jam, AC’s first for legendary indie label Domino. “Peacebone” rocketed out of the gates with cleaner production and slicker vocals, but its high-pitched warbles and neck-snapping breaks transmitted one message loud and clear: Animal Collective might be growing up, but they weren’t going soft.

Such a successful marriage of unhinged sonic experimentation with gleeful pop structures ran through their next few seminal albums and the hits spawned from each of them: “My Girls” and “Summertime Clothes” from 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion drip with humidity and thrum with good vibrations, transporting Animal Collective from their idyllic summers back home in Maryland, when they would convene in between semesters of high school and college to make music, forward to their current lives as adults supporting families, thanks to an untiring commitment to their art. Imagine your cool uncle reliving his eye-opening first experience with LSD and subsequent journey down psych, drone, and Krautrock rabbit holes over beers in the backyard.

Strawberry Jam and Merriweather Post Pavilion were both universally hailed as masterpieces, earning countless Album of the Year (and even Album of the Decade and Century) accolades. So it made sense that Panda Bear, Avey Tare, Geologist, and Deakin would reconvene and write an album together in the same space for the first time in years on 2012’s Centipede HZ. And it makes even more sense that the album would explore fresh territory, piling high the guitar riffs, piano loops, layered vocals, trance-inducing drums, and countless overdubs in the spirit of their earlier work. And unsurprisingly, it had no effect on their popularity, eliciting praise even from purists who were unhappy about the band’s foray into poppier territory.

Before and after Centipede HZ, Animal Collective finally figured out how to slow down, balancing long tours with extended steps back from the limelight — to enjoy the fruits of their accomplishments by curating film and music festivals, to spend time with their young families, and also to indulge in their own individual interests. Avey Tare and Panda Bear both recorded solo albums that wrestled with death, horror, and despair. Individually and as a group, they recorded visual records, assisted on performance art installations at the Guggenheim, worked on new songs in the same studio where Brian Wilson pored over Pet Sounds and Smile, and backed John Cale for a one-time-only Paris performance of the seminal 1966 album Velvet Underground & Nico.

Which kinda says it all about Animal Collective’s most recent album, 2016’s Painting With. The band had Cale contribute a drone-drenched viola part to “Hocus Pocus” and sax impresario Colin Stetson belt out some squelches. But they also worked to eliminate reverb and drawn-out ethereal passages nearly everywhere else. Portner, Weitz, and Lennox all told Pitchfork in January that they wanted to make their “Ramones record,” with short songs, a focus on elemental energy and a “homogenous energy.” Said Lennox, “we wanted to do something that blasted away the whole time.”

It works, right from the opening bars of the galloping, neon-drenched “FloriDada,” which will surely be a staple of Animal Collective’s upcoming Sunshine State dates. Surprisingly, many critics panned the album’s sing-along nature, its more straightforward use of modular synthesizers, its silly, Golden Girls-sampling “Golden Gal,” and the fact that the album was purposely leaked by looping it through the speakers of Baltimore-Washington International Airport. But catch them live and the rush still remains, hitting all your senses with trippy stained-glass visuals, spine-tingling vocals, and crowd-pleasing beats that rise and fall rhythmically and instill a truly collective feeling for two hours or so each night. 

“I like the idea of taking over a room with sound and visuals,” Lennox told Consequence of Sound in February. “I like any performance space where the divide between performer and audience is blurred. It isn’t ‘them’ or ‘us,’ it’s just everybody involved in this experience.”