Back in July when anticipation for Panda Bear’s latest solo affair – which still has no release date in sight – was reaching a fever pitch, we were pleasantly caught off guard (at least I was) with the announcement his bandmate Avey Tare (AKA David Portner) would be releasing his first solo outing, Down There. It seemed like it came out of nowhere and this may shed some light on the two Animal Collective members’ respective modus operandi. Whereas Panda Bear’s records tend to seem slaved over, Avey Tare’s album feels like a confession laid bare without quite the same deliberation. Panda Bear has made some magnificent music, but Avey Tare proves that both methods are certainly effective in their own ways.
The most noticeable alteration in Avey Tare’s sound right out of the gate is how subdued the work is. Portner has been toning down the ecstatic eruptions that filled Animal Collective albums like Feels and Strawberry Jam on recent A.C. releases, but nothing even resembles that kind of energy on Down There. Even Portner’s quieter moments on last year’s Fall Be Kind EP were still packed with layers of sound and heavy emoting, both of which are by and large absent here. Down There by contrast is a lean and muted affair. The sparseness brings about tension akin to that of dubstep, as space between synths and echoing vocals emphasizes the album’s hollow soul.
Portner has frequently referred to Down There in interviews as swampy, giving the ambiguous claim that the record was inspired by a crocodile. This didn’t seem like a huge stretch to me, Merriweather Post Pavilion had a number of swampy sounds on it; I could imagine Down There easily be an extension of that record. To an extent, a lot of the swirling aquatic sounds found on MPP or Panda Bear’s own Person Pitch are present here. The similarities in tone really end there; this is a far cry from the celebratory nature of those records.
“Never let on that I’m feeling bad” is the kind of uncomfortable admission typical of Down There, in which two recurring themes include sad days and crying. The outlook is bleak on “Lucky 1″ as Portner sings “Today you feel like the lucky one/ Die in a bed of shade today you like the lucky one,” and “Heather in the Hospital” is a detailed account relating his sister’s battle with cancer. It’s fair to say these songs represent dark times for Portner. In spite of all of the resigned despondency in his voice and the lugubrious nature of his lyrics, there is still something powerfully therapeutic about the whole thing. At a taut 35 minutes, the album is easily shorter than any full-length falling under the proper Animal Collective catalogue, barely eclipsing his full-time group’s aforementioned EP Fall Be Kind in length. The brevity certainly works in the album’s favor; songs move seamlessly into each other and the result is one engulfing whole. Given this and the album’s melancholy tone, it’s the perfect length for such an emotional release.
Between landing an album in the top 10 and topping end-of-year lists around the globe, 2009 proved to be a banner year for Animal Collective. So it wouldn’t come as a huge surprise to see the band members taking a step back to focus on solo material, if only for a breather. But make no mistake, Down There is certainly no breather. Even in interviews Portner gives the impression that this was not the most pleasant album to make and he doesn’t have any immediate plans to tour for it. Hopefully the album’s creation has been restorative, allowing him an outlet to put this grief behind him. Down There is not an immediate record, but it is certainly a rewarding one, once again showing Avey Tare’s creatively restless spirit is one of the shining lights in indie music today.
Video: “Lucky 1″