Googie architecture bakes in the summer sun. Vinyl seats sticky with sweat give off their polystyrene perfume. Upturned roofs and fintailed cars from the 1950s sit parked outside palm trees, surfer-packed beaches and the towering glass of the local McDonald’s, its twin golden arches blazing in Empyrean glory. Animal Collective has wanted to live in this world for quite some time; in fact, one could reconfigure an understanding of their history around the duality of Strawberry Jam and Merriweather Post Pavilion, one being the explosion outward and the other being the faulty truncation back inward, all centered on evoking a very particular post-SMiLE sessions Beach Boys sense of psychedelic pop. It’s an arc that has seen the band careen from the deeply noisy and unkempt in Centipede Hz to the overly trim and congealed Painting With but which they seem at last to have nailed precisely here with Time Skiffs.
Admitting this on some level requires a heterodox understanding of the body of work produced by Animal Collective. Few would argue against the notion that their early records were an upward trajectory, but once the notion of the supremacy of either Strawberry Jam or Merriweather Post Pavilion appears, we enter into the beginnings of the schism. While MPP is often lauded for its increased sharpness of composition and the way it foregrounded an ever-sweetened post-Beach Boys sense of melody to their work, eventually earning it widespread acclaim, it is hard at least to certain ears not to view it as a failed experiment. The most acerbic thing that could be said about it is that its acclaim largely comes from people of a certain age associating it with doing too much molly in dorm rooms and indie bars around America, a sentiment that certainly lands in some regard but does miss the fact that that particular record was at least a sincere tip of the hand from the band toward the trajectory they wished the band to go. The next element of this great schism emerges with Centipede Hz, a fantastic record that restored in fullness the progressive, experimental, avant-garde and abrasive core of the band that seemed sanded off and neutered on the pop-dominating MPP. Saying that the album is definitively excellent would get most people strange looks; saying it is their undoubted best, surpassing Strawberry Jam and Merriweather Post Pavilion both, would have most rolling their eyes at you. The fact remains, however, that it’s true. The one thing everyone can agree with is that Painting With, a deeply Ween-like slice of indie pop truncations of their sonic ideals, is clearly unsuccessful in its endeavors.
What we can see looking backward from Time Skiffs is a wild diverging, the gyre spreading wider and wider from the era beginning after Feels. This tension, the simultaneous urge toward endless psychedelia and gooey proggy jams as well as tight and tuneful kaleidoscopic psych pop, rocketed outward; there is Strawberry and Merriweather as poles, yes, but it’s hard not to view Centipede and Painting as points further out of that same trajectory. Time Skiffs emerges from this confusion, the band seemingly threatening to slide right off the god damn rails by, through a miracle of cosmic gravity, falling back toward itself. The songs present here are carefully calibrated controlled chaos, opening up into calliope and choir in a heartbeat before collapsing back to simple rock and roll pop-driven hooks. While the band threatened at times to sound like an acid casualty or a Coachella concert-goer half-lobotomized by a mixture of MDMA and alcohol, Time Skiffs sees the group tighten themselves back up via the time honored tradition of embracing tropicália. The band hasn’t precisely gone all sophisti-pop jazz-rock like modern day Fleet Foxes (despite the at-times eerie similarity to their use of choir vocals), but the more disciplined musicality shown by these players as they’ve matured allows them at long last to find that synthesis point they’ve longed for. The songs ebb and flow organically, shimmer with heat waves cresting off of chrome cars and curved windowsills, but never betray their central rhythms or pop melodies.
This is a success that isn’t unprecedented. Painting With and its accompanying EP The Painters (as well as the 7″ of additional songs present in some editions) displayed a faulty stab at this kind of synthesis but at least clear evidence that the band knew where they wanted to end up eventually. Those songs, as mentioned before, strayed away from the gold standard of Beach Boys circa Wildhoney or Sunflower, instead winding up closer to Ween at their goofiest or They Might Be Giants at their most trite and overly clever. The pathway out for Animal Collective seems to have been the curious novelty children’s songs of the 1950s and 1960s which often contained shockingly avant-garde electronic dapplings and proto-prog dalliances in drifting daydream melodies. This is the stuff that was psychedelic before psychedelia, the lysergic nature that we’d see decades later in something like Teletubbies but for a different era. There are gestures of Bruce Haack and Soothing Sounds for Baby, the extremely bizarre and deeply beautiful early electronica record series by Raymond Scott that pioneered the avant-garde in the context of music for infants. Their work in the cinematic certainly aided these endeavors; ODDSAC and Tangerine Reef were both faulty works but showcased the band attempting to imprint an organizing pillar against their psychedelic explorations, a trick which winds up animating Time Skiffs across its span.
It may be heterodox to some to call this record the best and most accomplished Animal Collective record to date, but so have many other correct stances on the group’s evolution over time. Their continued solo work, whose evolutions and textures find themselves replicated here in a harmonious whole you might not expect given just how divergent and prolific these players have been in solo environments over the past few years, continued to showcase that the group was looking to return to some center rather than spread further and further out. Painting With may have revealed what the true winners of the debate between Strawberry Jam and MPP had felt for years, that the band’s pop songwriting side was woefully underdeveloped compared to their psychedelic maximalist freakouts, but here, at long last, they’ve finally nailed it. This is the perfect balance, the band as exactly how they’ve wanted to be.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.