A couple of weeks back, Stereogum posted one of their Premature Evaluation pieces about Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz, which at the time wasn’t due out for more than a week. After spending 500-ish words enthusing about the album’s “dark Tropicalia sound” and how the band sound “like a bunch of people who have never seen their instruments played before, but are extremely skilled with them,” the review, such as it is, concludes with the remarkable statement that “we need to accept the possibility of a record so excellent we don’t understand it yet.”
The implication here is that Animal Collective are somehow above criticism — if you don’t like Centipede Hz, Stereogum appears to be arguing, it’s probably because you don’t “get” it. Can this be true? Can this ever be true?
The simple answer, of course, is “no.” Apart from being a pretty spectacular piece of hyperbole, the premise behind the Stereogum piece rather undermines the whole idea of what criticism is about: providing a reasoned and opinionated analysis of whatever it is you’re meant to be criticizing. If you doubt your opinion so much that you’re prepared to subjugate it to “I’m not worthy”-style forelock-tugging, perhaps it’s best not to share that opinion with the world in the first place.
This isn’t to say, of course, that there haven’t been records that have caused widespread confusion on their release and have made a whole lot more sense with the benefit of hindsight. Radiohead’s Kid A, for instance, bewildered just about everyone at first, and has since been acclaimed as a classic. But either way, surely you have to have some sort of opinion to call yourself a critic. Piss or get off the pot, as they say. If your opinion changes over time, then so be it. Admit you were wrong.
Still, in Stereogum’s defense, theirs was by its very nature a cursory, first-listen evaluation of a record that takes a bit of digesting. Now that critics have had time to listen properly to Centipede Hz, however, it’s interesting to note how much Stereogum’s “a record so excellent we don’t understand it yet” is echoed in the language of other reviews — both positive and negative.
There’s plenty of reading between the lines to be done in the major outlets’ reviews: NME , for instance, suggests that the album is “chaotic and confounding,” that it “will frustrate as much as it delights,” and that “no, not everything [Animal Collective] throw at the wall manages to stick” — but still gives it 8/10. Consequence of Sound concludes that it’s “another link in a chain leading into an as yet unclear ether. This link happens to be a little less certain, a little darker, but connected to all of the ones before it, and leading ever forward.”
Less favorable reviews deploy strikingly similar language — The AV Club, for instance, gives the album a schoolmarm-y C+ and complains that its songs are “so densely packed with sonic information that they become nearly impenetrable.” Despite deciding that the album only merits 6/10, Paste plants itself firmly on the fence and stays there: “Centipede Hz is not their worst album as some will believe — or as its dense ugliness will first sound — and it may continue to reveal itself over time.” And while long-time cheerleaders Pitchfork give the album a surprisingly lukewarm 7.4/10, Stuart Berman’s largely sensible review still finds time to proclaim that “[Animal Collective’s] is the rarest, most enviable form of success: one born not of conforming to audiences’ expectations but of constantly confounding them.”
These situations come along every so often in the music industry, usually involving bands who’ve been critical darlings and who’ve just released an album that stinks the place up, like a hitherto well-behaved dog that’s just done something terrible to the carpet. Animal Collective have long been favorites of the music press, of course — by 2010, once the post-Merriweather Post Pavilion hysteria had really kicked in, they were fielding hilariously sycophantic questions like “Do you feel like you’re only in competition with yourself at this point as far as your albums?” (from this Pitchfork interview).
The reaction to Centipede Hz hasn’t been quite a critical fiasco of the scale of, say, Oasis’s Be Here Now, which — hard as it is to believe now — attracted a ludicrously hyperbolic set of reviews despite being an artistic faceplant of heroic proportions: Q, for instance, notoriously shot the band in front of a blackboard bearing the slogan “The best there was, the best there is and the best there ever will be,” and gave the album a rapturous five-star review (a review that’s nowhere to be found on the Internet these days, curiously enough). But there’s been an awful lot of ambivalence and critical bet-hedging nonetheless, and the result is a sort of weird bipartisan consensus: the favorable reviews apologize for the album being hard to like, while the negative ones apologize for not liking it. No one, it appears, wants to just come straight out and say they don’t like it — just in case, y’know, they’re just not getting it.
This, frankly, will not do. Critics shouldn’t be deliberately iconoclastic or contrary, but neither should they be pusillanimous or have their reactions dictated by orthodoxy. Generally if a record sounds pretty average to you, it’s not because that record’s a masterpiece so mind-blowing your poor wee brain can’t comprehend it — it’s because that record’s pretty average. And while it’s a terrible feeling when one of your favorite bands releases a clanger, ultimately you just need to accept the fact, not try to explain it away — especially if you’re being paid to offer an informed opinion.
And for the record, our opinion on Centipede Hz? It’s… well, it’s OK, really. Just OK. It certainly has its moments, but it’s ultimately a curate’s egg of an album — not because it’s challenging or impenetrable, but because it’s overproduced, its arrangements are too busy, and with a couple of exceptions, the songs aren’t great. Simple as that.