It seems like every time Animal Collective releases an album, reviewers and critics line up to declare that the band’s “pop” moment has arrived. After all, the Brooklyn outfit has slowly but surely moved away from the borderline obnoxious, campfire-sing-along-on-acid aesthetic that once defined their sound. Merriweather Post Pavilion continues that transition, and while it remains to be seen whether or not this is truly the band’s pop moment, the album undoubtedly contains Animal Collective’s most palatable, and best, music to date.
Where 2007’s Strawberry Jam found AC co-founder Avey Tare front-and- center, Merriweather has his partner Panda Bear’s stylistic fingerprints all over it; the album displays the same sort of sun-drenched psychedelic pop and general sense of grandeur that defined Panda's 2007 solo opus, Person Pitch. Yet this is undoubtedly an Animal Collective record; while Avey Tare may have reeled himself in a bit, his voice remains in the forefront, though his affinity for jarring yelps, screeches, and senseless noisemaking seems to have subsided.
Animal Collective has certainly never been shy about experimentation and sonic excess, but something has undoubtedly changed. While calling Merriweather a mature album may sound terribly condescending, as though past efforts were primarily driven by impetuous recklessness and a general lack of self-awareness, this is the first time that the band has fully realized the power of restraint. Album opener “In the Flowers” begins with two and a half minutes of serene loops of white noise, tinkling keys, and calmly delivered vocals before exploding with a magnificent burst of melody and Avey Tare’s suddenly soaring voice. That said, it’s not as if Animal Collective has churned out some sort of vanilla pop record; there is plenty of sonic weirdness to digest on Merriweather. A looped didgeridoo makes up the primary beat of “Lion In a Coma.” The woozy “Daily Routine” features dubby basslines and synth flourishes that recall old videogames until they’re looped into a mystical crescendo about halfway through the song.
Oddly enough, this might also be the band’s most electronic record to date–it’s certainly the most programmed. Album standout “My Girls” is anchored by an arpeggiated synth and low-end bass stabs, not to mention Avey Tare’s sonorous multitracked vocals. A similar synth arpeggio makes an appearance on “Summertime Clothes,” a propulsive slice of pop (that also happens to be the best song on the album). Avey Tare and Panda Bear go back and forth on vocals, awash in swirling synths, fluttering melodies, and other oddball sounds.
As with anything involving Panda Bear, Merriweather owes a certain debt to The Beach Boys, and especially Brian Wilson. Both “Bluish” and “No More Runnin” could be updated songs from the Pet Sounds sessions. Yet Panda Bear is not the lone voice on these songs; Avey Tare has also learned to channel Wilson as part of his ever-expanding vocal repertoire. No longer can the two be crudely distinguished as “the guy with the crazy voice” and “the guy who sounds like The Beach Boys.” Now they’re both just the frontmen of a group that happens to be making some of the most interesting and compelling music around.