Most people don’t listen to experimental music because they don’t have to. Experimental music isn’t meant to be entertaining: its purpose is in its name. When I listen, its either because its inspired something I love or I feel that I need to eat some musical vegetables. Its something I tend to reserve for Youtube videos rather than LP purchases. The fact that Animal Collective, a band frequently called experimental, does not land in this category for me or most of its fans is a telling sign.
The band’s reputation as an experimental group has more to do with their popularity than any sort of avant edge that the band supposedly occupies. The surprisingly consistent quality of their music comes from an ability to temper their mildly experimental tendencies with standard creative elements like repetition, raw emotion, and just plain old great songwriting. Odd musical proclivities, in the end, play a supporting role rather than a central one, imbuing the relatable elements of the band’s music with a dissociative quality, allowing us to hear old concepts as new ones.
The play between experimentation and entertainment maps throughout the band’s unavoidably linear catalog. The musicians of Animal Collective, all of whom are self-taught, almost seem to have discovered pop songwriting on their own, over the course of several albums worth of noodling. Their 2009 album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, packaged their previous creative discoveries in an easily digestible format. It was their most successfully and consistently entertaining album, all of their best tricks having been compressed and amplified for easier, more direct consumption. A particularly sweet moment on 2005’s “Banshee Beat” became the intense, sustained sublimity of 2009’s “Bluish”. In the end, experimentation became entertainment through trial, error, and replication.
With Centipede Hz, they’ve decided to stick with a similarly compressed structure in the vein of MPP. It’s not a move that’s easy to criticize, given the success of the format’s last venture, but the choice effectively reduces Animal Collective’s infamous creativity into the songwriting capacity of The Shins. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily. The music is calm, creative, and often poignant. Is it not, however, adventurous.
Of course, we can’t expect Animal Collective to stop developing just because they’ve found what seems to be their most solid musical skeleton. Their exploration is simply thematic rather than structural. Centipede Hz attempts to look at the ugly side of analog media: radio static, VHS tapes, walkie-talkies, and 1980s arcade machines. It’s an aesthetic they touched with 2010’s “visual album” ODDSAC, but here it seems to be their top priority. “Sounds like machines talking to me on the phone,” Avey Tare sings on “Mercury Man”. The sound is fast, frenetic, and noisy, yearning for the contrast of an open, expansive environment. “Applesauce” and “New Town Burnout” do it best, letting sounds resonate and bounce between the ears for minutes and developing a slow, building chord progression.
Unfortunately, many of the album’s songs are much tighter. Combined with layered cascades of alien noise, the music becomes crowded, almost claustrophobic. Clouds of sound fog melodies and the vocalists sound as if they are in another room, covered by static, pops, and squawks. The subtle nuances that can make their building melodies so exhilarating are barely noticeable, turning repeated vocals into tedious yelps that sound more silly than empathetic.
Empathy is more important than Centipede Hz seems to recognize. What’s always set this band of stoners from Baltimore apart from other groups is that their hearts have almost always been immediately apparent. On their best records, the soul of the music reveals itself just after a listen or two, rising to the top with surprising intensity. If anything, the band’s strangeness merely served to call attention more quickly to their best moments. Centipede Hz doesn’t work in this paradigm. We have to reach into the album and blindly grab for its resonance. As a result we come away with less.