About 45 seconds into Animal Collective’s tremendous ninth album, echo-laden acoustic guitar picking provides the first hint that Merriweather Post Pavilion will be the group’s most rhythmically structured album to date.
It plinks along in 3/4 time, unfazed by the hazy synth creeping up behind it. Where in past efforts, Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) or Avey Tare (David Portner) or Geologist (Brian Weitz) might have chopped it up, sped it up, yelped or howled it into the background, this simple meter tiptoes on, holding its creators at bay and its listeners on edge.
At the 2:30 mark, that echo-laden guitar picking explodes. But not in the way Animal Collective lovers and haters have come to expect. Instead of vocal texture brightening the corners of opener “In the Flowers”, it’s layers and layers of orchestral programming — the first hint that this will be the group’s most ambitious and accessible album as well.
Anticipation for Merriweather Post Pavilion had already reached ridiculous proportions by the time album closer “Brother Sport” leaked on Nov. 18. That said closer was a frantic, lap-pop amalgam of Brian Wilson and Afro-pop era Paul Simon only engendered more excitement. Heady music blogs (fanboys?) tagged MPP as THE album of 2009 in 2008, largely on good faith garnered by “Brother Sport”, “Summertime Clothes” — another early leak — and lead single “My Girls”.
While few moments on MPP reach the sugary heights of those three songs, the whole album is as close to flawless as anyone with a discerning pop ear could want. After the aforementioned opener, “My Girls”’ shimmer and club-ready bump trickles into the slow-burning stomp of “Also Frightened”, a complex song with a sweet sing-along center. Hammy organ samples interject the verses of “Daily Routine”. Midway point “Bluish” boasts the album’s prettiest melody/harmony, as well as a dulcimer arpeggio that randomly conjures to my mind the animation of Hayao Miyazaki.
But the real gem hiding in the dense sonic vegetation of MPP is “Lion In a Coma”, a song built entirely on didgeridoo in the key of E. The beat hammers down deliberately, like something you’d hear bumping in the trunk of a low-riding Buick. Avey Tare crams as many syllables in as possible, almost ignoring the tempo. At first, you hear “lion in a coma” as a whisper. By the time the song crescendos, the line has shifted subtly to “lying in a coma”. It’s a brilliant turn, made even more powerful by synth strings swirling around the hook. The song is a new standard for Animal Collective, the measure by which every song in their varied catalog will (or should) be judged.
Lyrically, Merriweather Post Pavilion jostles between ruminations on domestic life and metaphysical, stoner mumbo-jumbo. The most memorable turn of phrase comes in “My Girls”, when Panda Bear declares: “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things, like social status. I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls.” It’s wonderfully tongue-in-cheek and completely benign. The protagonist of “Summertime Clothes” playfully confesses his desire to “walk around with you” after awaking a sweaty, lonely mess in the middle of the night. Elsewhere, Tare and Bear’s verse is unintelligible, not that it matters. These guys have never really been about lyrics anyway.
This is especially true for Merriweather Post Pavilion, an album that defies expectations from the 45-second mark on. Best album of 2009? Perhaps. Best album by a band in the business of making incredible, diverse album after incredible, diverse album? Without a doubt. (Domino, 2009)
By Blake Jackson