Animal Collective’s half-decade stint at experimental music’s vanguard was defined by restlessness rather than some specific, readily imitable sound. If there was a common thread holding their releases together, it was the band’s generosity of spirit: few of their contemporaries were singing about the simple pleasures of domesticity, let alone using the image of scared babies pooping to express the overwhelming power of the world around us.
As they veered from spare, infantile folk into explosive art-rock and psychedelic dance music, nothing about their artistry felt predictable or stable. "The most interesting thing about [Animal Collective] at this point may be that … it’s not hard to imagine them failing," wrote Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson in a prescient 2009 review. "There still seems to be a desire to go to unfamiliar realms, and it’s possible that wherever they head next will turn out to be a place they don’t inhabit as easily."
Painting With is the band’s 10th studio album and first in four years, and it’s the absence of that desire that renders the LP a minor disappointment. It makes for an interesting comparison with 2012’s Centipede Hz, an album that was unfulfilling for entirely different reasons. After breaking through to a wider audience with the fecund, trippy pop of Merriweather Post Pavilion, the band came back with a muddy collection of hookless songs, many of them reliant on live instrumentation and obscure samples. The album would’ve been challenging in isolation; on the heels of the band’s most accessible record yet, it felt like a deliberate detour. For perhaps the first time, their exploratory impulse hadn’t been rewarding.
The band is retracing their footsteps
Painting With is brighter, more intelligible, and much more concise; it might be the first Animal Collective album you can call "tidy." The songs are still dense, but they’re conventionally structured and streamlined, and Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s vocal lines are always at the top of the mix. There’s a buoyancy and direction to songs like lead single "FloriDada" that was nowhere to be found on Centipede Hz. Songs like "Vertical" and "Bagels in Kiev" take the propulsive, thick feel of that album’s best bits and stuff it into more palatable packages. (You can imagine an unorthodox rapper doing something with the beat of the former.) Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s lead vocals are intertwined to an unusual degree, rifling back and forth in your headphones until it’s hard to pick out who’s singing what. When they collapse together for the Beach Boys-like harmony that’s colored a few of the band’s albums — like on the radiant, playful "Golden Gal" — they sound juicier in the wake of that disorientation.
This is also the first album on which you can hear the band retracing their footsteps. Despite a typically muscular contribution from the avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson, "Lying in the Grass" is less Painting With than paint-by-numbers: think Panda’s viscous tenor dripping, the vaguely tribal elements of Feels, a noodling flute melody like the one sampled on "Graze." The half of the album stretching from "The Burglars" through "Summing the Wretch" congeals like half-melted Skittles, a formless blob of color and sugar liable to give you a toothache. The band’s paid lip service to the music of the Ramones and the early Beatles when discussing the record, bands meant to represent speed, energy, and homogeneity.
I never expected the band to sound workmanlike
It’s an intriguing concept, but the melodic ideas on hand here aren’t strong or distinct enough to render it a success. Avey and Panda’s respective solo careers have continued unabated: Avey’s band Slasher Flicks released Enter the Slasher House in 2014, and Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper was a critical hit last year. It’s possible those albums gobbled up ideas that would’ve otherwise crept onto a new Animal Collective LP, necessitating the group’s focus on shorter songs and sounds they’ve used before.
I started listening to Animal Collective in high school, a time when the band’s promise of boundless creativity and disregard for notions of "cool" felt almost seductive. They made joyous, colorful music that befuddled my parents, suggested drugs I’d only heard about second-hand, and represented some kind of freedom I had yet to experience. I’m just self-aware enough to realize the experiences described above are nowhere near unique. Animal Collective had the power to occupy that space for an entire micro-generation of listeners, and that’s why Painting With feels a little dispiriting. They were the last band you expected to end up sounding workmanlike.