Part of getting to know Animal Collective in the mid-’00s was trying to figure out just how much we were in on their act. The psych-pop experimenters’ recent interviews suggest how intentional this experience may have been: Formed in Baltimore but reared in the New York avant-garde, the four-piece in early live shows would thin out already-sparse tour crowds, prompt at least one out-of-town venue owner to close ahead of schedule, and surreptitiously stage the occasional performance-art stunt. Eventually, though, that changed. By the time of 2007’s Strawberry Jam and 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, the hypnotic textures of the first several records’ off-kilter campfire harmonies had gotten as familiar as old friends, but now arrived nestled in songs that instantly welcomed the newly acquainted. There was still plenty you could debate about “My Girls,” but not its impact. How did Animal Collective respond to their most materially successful song being one that questions the importance of material success? About as gracefully as you’d hope, really.
Their big breakthrough’s follow-up album, 2012’s Centipede Hz, was a more bustling, road-ready affair — The King of Limbs to Merriweather’s In Rainbows — and in the meantime, de facto band leaders Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear) and David Portner (a.k.a. Avey Tare) have kept up their usual flow of worthy solo releases; Brian Weitz (a.k.a. Geologist) had a daughter and acted as a stay-at-home parent. The band’s tenth album, Painting With, reunites the Merriweather lineup of Lennox, Portner, and Weitz, with Josh Dibb (a.k.a. Deakin) sitting this one out for a side project of his own. Built around modular synths and eccentric percussion instruments, it’s definitely in line with the group’s style. But one reference point tending to crop up in interviews now is the Ramones; stripping away any husk of reverb or ambient interludes for the very first time, the 12-song, 41-minute set distills Animal Collective’s sound to a potent, hypercolor dose.
It’s poppier, in a characteristically warped way, than even Merriweather, the group’s most popular album to date. That’s down to the record’s rarely wavering energy; subtle details abound in the interplay between Lennox and Portner’s near-indistinguishably overlapping yawps, or in the giddy, ping-ponging sonic backdrops, but that’s all a bonus when the songs bounce along like Tigger in a 5 Hour Energy ad. As Animal Collective balance bringing in sonic intricacies with hitting simple, sugar-craving pleasure centers, it doesn’t hurt that they enlist a couple of avant-garde luminaries for surprise and balance. Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale lends drones to grinning highlight “Hocus Pocus,” with its yearbook-ready quotable “Wander from the cynical / Take a look at views atypical,” while the presence of saxophone heavyweight Colin Stetson is evident from the squeaky winds on “Lying in the Grass,” which chases polyrhythms in search of “the hidden mixtures.” Clever samples also do their part, most notably a snippet from The Golden Girls setting the tone for the somewhat more deliberately paced “sex and gender” examination “Golden Gal.”
That’s not to understate the richness of material here. “Bagels in Kiev” puts the synth-squiggling ululations in both a personal and geopolitical context, with the sounds of explosions far removed from Strawberry Jam’s “Fireworks” as Portner reflects on family roots in a region more recently torn by war. Then, in typically indirect fashion, he seizes on a powerfully mundane detail: “Bagels for everyone / That’s the kind of thing you would have wanted.” Everyday concerns are a focus, too, amid the stuttering beats of “Vertical,” where “the parking lot is way too hot” for feet, and four walls still hold appeal, even if those walls are made of leaves. But larger worries aren’t far beneath: “I start to wonder, does this system matter?” Fear of theft, misguided or not, looms within the hummingbird clockwork of “The Burglars.”
Lennox, Portner, and Weitz recorded Painting With at Los Angeles’ storied EastWest Studios, where they brought in images of dinosaurs; “Hocus Pocus” opens with a playful dino-related sample. There’s an obvious gag here — ten albums in, Animal Collective are a dinosaur act — and they’re not hiding it; Weitz talks about time seeming to move more slowly as you get older, and began one interview answer in Pitchfork with, “This might just be the dad in me, but…” First single “FloriDada” puns instead on the European radical art movement, but also embodies how Animal Collective have avoided “dad-rock” for the previous decade. By hiding their pro forma instincts in plain sight, perhaps, like one of DuChamp’s readymades, but also with humor — a “Wipe Out” bite, a bridge about bridges — but also with hope for “Some sort of mythical place / Or was it a future” where our smug, tribal “Florida man” snickers and slips away like our summertime clothes. Figuring out whether you’re “in on it” is part of getting into any work of art, we learn, sooner or later. The title of Painting With is pointedly open-ended: Debuted at the Baltimore airport, with one song premiered via an app that allows users to “paint with someone else,” Animal Collective’s latest sees them painting with confidence, acrylics, dinosaurs, Bob Ross, a twist, and a wipe out.