Animal Collective have built a career on switching up their sound, but they’ve never abandoned repetition as one of their central driving forces. Whether frenetic, narcotic or somewhere in between, every record makes some attempt to create a trance by staying with a single idea for a long period of time. Isn’t It Now?, the group’s 12th studio album, is no exception. But here the strategy serves some songs far better than others. The record is among their warmest and most mesmerizing, tinged with mellow energy and a commitment to exploration. It’s also one of their most scattered.
Isn’t It Now? is the product of a summer 2019 writing retreat to a countryside cabin southwest of Nashville. Over just a month, the band realized they had enough material for at least two albums. COVID informed the direction of the first one they assembled from the session, last year’s Time Skiffs. For that record, they handpicked the tracks they thought would be easiest to record remotely, while Isn’t It Now? collects the songs that rely more on playing together in a room. The live, semi-improvisatory style is a great showcase for the band’s chops. Just listen to Avey’s bass slide in the keyboard interludes in the middle section of “Defeat,” or the physical textures Deakin’s piano lends “Magicians from Baltimore.” Digital flourishes abound—that’s always been the rule—but this is still Animal Collective in more of a rock band mode.
They’ve recorded this way before, most recently with Centipede Hz in 2012. But Isn’t It Now? bears a much closer resemblance to 2005’s Feels. With that record the band achieved a glacial, bleeding, deliberately out-of-tune live rock sound. Almost twenty years later, Isn’t It Now? sounds like a more mature update on the idea. The leadoff track and second single, “Soul Capturer,” is a playful trance of an acoustic pop song, a more stoic cousin to Feels opener “Did You See the Words.” In the tradition of the best Animal Collective lyrics, “Soul Capturer” is both non-specific and emotionally penetrating. “Soul Capturer, goodbye William Tell/ You need your lunch, you need a crutch/ You think too much about the crying/ Spoiled and the capturer got you tied,” Avey Tare sings breathily. As a stand-in for any hindrance or temptation—especially the Internet—these words hit a note of scrappy, childlike truth.
“Genie’s Open” follows on a more exploratory note, morphing from a plangent keyboard loop into a shanty, for which the brief and bouncy “Broke Zodiac” acts as a coda. But the two best songs here are the album’s longest. “Magicians from Baltimore,” a restless nine-minute homecoming odyssey, takes its time reaching liftoff. “There is a dream land many miles inside me/ And I go there when I can/ Many miles haunting me,” Avey’s voice runs through watery distortion while Deakin’s piano provides the song’s exultant sendoff—a backdrop for when sour emotion and thrilling possibility coexist.
But “Defeat,” the band’s longest song ever at 22 minutes, is far and away this album’s crowning achievement. It tells a slow-burn story in three parts, both rich and unyielding enough in its meaning for countless listens. The first section showcases the band’s patience, all keyboards and gentle nerves, as Avey Tare urges us to “Grab something, take hold/ The only thing you know/ Stay grounded like the spruce.” The second injects a fleeting note of wonder as half-chanted vocals ask the half-question: “Crawling from the serpent/ In the water/ The mirror/ The what have we become?” The third section, spanning the song’s entire second half, eats at the embers of that vague emotion. It’s loaded with solemnity, spacey like a graveyard of dead stars.
Nothing after “Defeat” approaches what came before. Even in this chill songwriting mode, AC are at their best when they exploit structure: tension, release, and back again. That’s where the back half of the album falls short. While interesting experiments, “Gem & I” and “All the Clubs Are Broken” feel out of place in this context, too slight for the sound the band has already built up. And “Stride Rite” lacks the dynamism to make its tender lyrics stick. “Lost one to cancer, two to sorrow/ Three by losing patience/ With the people who we are” is a thoughtfully shaded take on grief, but Deakin’s limitations as a singer hold the song back, and his piano doesn’t approach the emotional heights it does in “Magicians from Baltimore.” The cyclical vocal harmonies in closer “King’s Walk,” while inviting, feel oddly unaccompanied. Unlike with most of the band’s repetitive songs, these five minutes feel arbitrarily extended.
Over the course of aesthetic sea changes, Animal Collective have always made intentional use of album structure. But unlike their best records, Isn’t It Now? plays more like a collection than a journey. There may be a great record to be assembled from that fruitful 2019 session that gave us this album and the similarly uneven Time Skiffs. And there’s no reason to think the well’s run dry. After all, this is the first time since Feels and Strawberry Jam the group has released back-to-back albums as a full quartet—and this comes almost a quarter century into their career. Missteps aside, it’s deeply exciting to hear the foursome more locked in than ever, embracing their shared musical dialect of the moment.
Casey is thinking about modern hip-hop and 70s rock. He’s written for Grandma Sophia’s Cookies, Brainchild, Plaze Music and WTJU.