In hindsight, Centipede Hz definitely felt like the apex of everything Animal Collective had been striving toward for the previous 13 years, charting musical highs and lows while pinballing between ideas. The prevailing mood throughout was one of unpredictability, but it was scattershot in the extreme, as garish and uncompromising as the sleeve art suggested. Since then, we’ve had a Panda Bear solo album and an unfairly overlooked LP from Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks. Animal Collective as an entity has been mainly silent in that time, and the band appears on their 10th official studio album as a trio: Avey Tare (Dave Portner), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and Geologist (Brian Weitz).
One thing that is immediately apparent on Painting With‘s opener “FloriDada” is that it is probably the cleanest-sounding AnCo album to date, occupying a weird space between hyper-stylized minimal-ism and effortless accessibility. With and without their intermittent fourth member Deakin (Josh Dibb, currently off discovering fatherhood), the band have earned a reputation for fleshing out their melodic ideas with idiosyncratic weirdness and experimentation; there’s none of that here.
Instead, what we are presented with is a high-energy collection that steers clear of excess, offering up a deconstruction of the usual pop template while doing so. There’s constant forward momentum, but in spite of the album’s energetic nature, it never becomes tiring. One thing that the new record features quite a bit of is the zig-zag effect that chops up the lead vocal line on several of the new songs, most notably the Colin Stetson-featuring “Lying in the Grass” and the juddering, propulsive dance-pop of “Spilling Guts.” That’s called “hocketing“—a technique beloved of Lennox, used to great effect on “Boys Latin” from last year’s Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper—and can sound disorienting at first, but honestly, that’s something Animal Collective are very good at.
Even their most immediate moments (“Summertime Clothes,” “Fireworks,” “Today’s Supernatural” et al.) made an impact by courting accessibility while still thinking outside the box. Earlier records like Sung Tongs and Feels toyed with convention in an even more outré manner. Their 17-year career has been littered with surprises and spawned countless imitators, but through it all, they’ve never quite sounded as focused as they do here. “Vertical” and “The Burglars” display two very different sides of the band: the former welded to a thudding rhythm and a blissful lead melody, the other packing a ridiculous amount of syllables into phrases as it speeds along without a care in the world.
Such a lean-sounding record would suffer with an altered track listing: 12 songs and 41 minutes is perfect, each song taking multiple listens to absorb and understand, some more impactful than others, but all essential pieces of the whole. Painting With sounds more accomplished than any of the band’s output over the past decade, which is somewhat ironic since it doesn’t do nearly as much. This is a more economical Animal Collective than certain fans of the band might be used to, but no less thrilling. It’s definitely a pop album, but not in the way that their breakthrough record Merriweather Post Pavilion was a pop album. It’s just as strong melodically but does more with less: a progression from what came before, and the dawn of a new era for the band.