Animal Collective has released nine albums in the past nine years, all challenging, all imperfect but innovative, all substantially different. Some are placid, others orgiastic; some are convincingly reminiscent of dreams and drug trips, others convincingly reminiscent of third-graders; some are gummy and formless, others are almost — just almost — straightforward.
Their peaks are high and their valleys embarrassingly low, but the trade-off has always seemed fair: They've exposed the young white world to dub, South American, and African styles; they've futzed around with insular genres such as noise and rave without frightening passersby; they've made dance music tolerable to the arms-folded crowd; they've somehow become eminently hip without sounding urbane. They're good-natured and a little weird. In short, the group is the open-field festival band for a demographic that would scoff at the notion.
Compared to the rest of its protean catalogue, the band's latest album, Merriweather Post Pavilion — a record so hysterically anticipated by fans that one actually broke into one of the members' email accounts — is steady and even-keeled. It might not be pop, but it plays like it, with verses and choruses, without too many fits and starts, without too many harsh noises — without, for the first time, screaming. Psychedelia, it turns out, isn't easily compressed into pop-song proportions — that's just the nature of infinity. So, the concessions here are to the tame and slightly corny, the same concessions the Flaming Lips made in the late 1990s.
But MPP is filled with enough new achievements that it's a waste of space to lament the past. It's a rhythm record with an atmosphere. It uses negative space like dub and canned euphoria like early rave music. It synthesizes all the styles they've flirted with and strains out just enough of what freaks out the normals. Most songs are weaves of glittery synths flowing over booms and thumps that reach hip-hop depths (engineered by Ben Allen, who has credits with Gnarls Barkley and Diddy). And, of course, voices: track after track of gorgeous vocal arrangements as harmonically expansive as they are rhythmically propulsive, as indebted to the Beach Boys as to the repetitive chants of African, South American, and gospel music.
It would also be pat to say MPP is the band's album about growing up, but it is one about endings and beginnings. They sing about starting families; they sing about people they once knew; they fret over whether their capacity for youthful abandon is waning, and whether that's just part of life. Panda Bear's lyrics — deliberately plainspoken — are a contrivance, but a comforting one. "I don't mean to seem like I care about material things" or "I know it sucks that Daddy's gone" aren't complicated phrases, but then again, neither are the sentiments.
If youth is wasted on the young, it makes sense that most of Animal Collective's fans are between the ages of 18 and 35 — when youth is bruised by responsibility, when innocence requires will (and some ignorance), and when reality becomes, well, a reality. Merriweather Post Pavilion truly captures this transitional struggle.