Why Do Animal Collective Suddenly Sound So Dated?


Remember the days when a new Animal Collective-related album would send the music press into paroxysms? In some ways, it feels like it wasn’t that long ago, but then, this month marks the sixth anniversary of the great collective Merriweather Post Pavilion-inspired pants-wetting, and response to the recent release of Panda Bear’s new solo record Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper has been muted, if largely favorable. And when you really sit down and think about it, it does feel like a long time ago that AnCo were the be-all and end-all, a time that’s passed and suddenly feels really rather dated. Have the most acclaimed band of the 2000s aged well? I’m not so sure they have.

As MOJO once wrote about Led Zeppelin, they’re responsible for what followed, but not to blame for it. You can see the influence of Animal Collective in a lot of what came after them — most notably chillwave, which took one aspect of early Animal Collective (the sort of ill-defined pastoral nostalgia) and spun it into an entire genre. Animal Collective were never really part of that scene, such as it was — they were more like its spiritual overlords, the band who blazed the trail that chillwave and its adherents stumbled along a couple of years later, tripping on questionable acid and mumbling things about beaches and PBR.

I’ve written before about the brief flourishing of chillwave, and how its faux nostalgia and escapism echoed with a pretty uncertain time IRL — the storied 2009 Summer of Chillwave coincided with the tail end of the global financial crisis, and its sounds evoked a retreat into a sort of magical world wherein none of those real-life concerns mattered. (These days, we call that place “Williamsburg.”) As such, it was very much a product of and reaction to a certain time, and it’s not unreasonable to expect that it’ll have aged badly. And it has. For example, look at this:

It’s so perfect that you might think it’s fake (I mean, DJ Tao Lin?!), but no, that’s a show that really happened in Williamsburg circa 2011. Those days are gone, and largely unlamented. (Does anyone know what happened to Neon Indian? Is he still haunting what used to be 285 Kent, like a sort of PBR-clutching Phantom of the Opera?)

Animal Collective, though — you’d think perhaps their music might have aged better. But hey, try it yourself: go back and listen to Merriweather Post Pavilion, an album that was received with rapturous reviews in 2009 and was pretty much unanimously acclaimed at the time as representing the apogee of the band’s artistic vision. By that point, Panda Bear’s Person Pitch had been out for two years, chillwave was chilling and waving for all it was worth, and neo-pastoral psychedelia was the Sound of a Generation. At the time it felt hyper-modern.

These days, though, it suddenly also seems very much of its time. Or perhaps not suddenly, because this realization has been building for a while. Animal Collective’s 2012 album Centipede Hz elicited a whole lot of reviews that sort of danced around the fact that it wasn’t very good (including Stereogum memorably declaring that “we need to accept the possibility of a record so excellent we don’t understand it yet”). The most notable thing about Centipede Hz, though, was that it felt somehow out of step with what was happening — 2012 gave us a lot of music that was direct and heartfelt in radically different ways (Channel Orange, Visions, The Money Store), and in comparison, the obliqueness of Animal Collective’s sound felt less fascinating than it did forbidding.

If you had to identify a sound that’s hyper-modern in 2015, it’s probably something like PC Music, which is defined specifically by its lack of a defining sound — it’s the sound of 100 disparate influences thrown together, the sort of music that Grimes had in mind when she coined the phrase “post-Internet.” It’s weird, bewildering, and most importantly, it’s exuberantly digital music. In comparison to that, Animal Collective starts to sound like what it’s always been — a 2000s take on the music of the 1960s, inspired by acid and a sort of bug-eyed, youthful sense of wonder.

That’s not to say the subject matter’s always been innocent — as Flavorwire’s Shane Barnes points out, Panda Bear, at least, has long addressed the subject of mortality in his lyrics (and remains perhaps the only musician to record an album in his dying father’s hospital room). But there’s a certain innocence, or at least faux-innocence, to Animal Collective and the music they inspired — as we’ve discussed, chillwave was all about re-imagining a sort of mythical, pastoral past into which one could escape, and long before that Animal Collective themselves were making records that were basically the sound of three kids discovering acid and decamping to the woods for several years.

There’s something paradoxical about all this. Innocence is, by its very nature, timeless — by definition, it dictates that you’re not particularly aware of the world around you. Cynicism, by contrast, is very much a product of circumstance — it’s a reaction to the way things are at a specific time. And yet innocence doesn’t age well, perhaps because it also involves an embrace of the new, and what’s new at one point will inevitably feel dated in due course. Cynicism is more like a re-endorsement of what seem like universal truths — that human nature can be, and often is, inherently selfish and brutal.

None of this, of course, is to say that Animal Collective are no longer good, or that they were never so. At their peak, their music achieved the sort of boundary-pushing weirdness that forced even skeptics like me to admit they were doing something interesting and different. But it suddenly seems so… so 2000s. Cultural cycles work faster than ever these days, and it’s all too easy for the sound that defines an era to be left behind.