In 1999, one of the preceding decade's most revered, experimental bands, the Flaming Lips, jettisoned some of the problematic, self-consciously fey trappings of their previous work and distilled the elements that worked best about their distinctive take on modern pop into song structures that were as accessible as they were adventurous. The Lips then unveiled their deliberately constructed, refined new sound on a landmark album, The Soft Bulletin, that was both influenced by and superior to the music of its era and which stands as one of the finest, most important and influential albums of its decade.
Ten years later, a nearly identical situation presents itself with Animal Collective's extraordinary Merriweather Post Pavilion. Beyond the sheer quality of its songcraft, the fundamental humanity of its content, and the balance of its experimental bent with pop conventions, perhaps the most important parallel that Merriweather draws to Soft Bulletin is in the way both records capture a newfound aesthetic maturity for their respective bands: This is the record on which Animal Collective learned how to edit their work with a sense of purpose and clarity of vision. Their twee masks and costumes have, thankfully, been gone for a couple of albums, but now the self-indulgent jam-band digressions, the ironic freak-folk posturing, and the lazy wordplays that have made their work fitfully insufferable have also been set aside. In their place, Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Deakin, and the Geologist have reconciled their individual artistic impulses—most notably, Avey Tare's effervescence and Panda Bear's experimental use of multi-layered, repeated tracks—into a singular aesthetic that simply explodes beyond what their contemporaries are currently doing.
That isn't to say that Merriweather is not a product of its era; it is, in contrast, an of-the-moment cultural assessment. Optimism is once again in vogue—right, Sally Hawkins and Wall-E?—and it hardly seems like a coincidence that an album so steeped in positivity is set for release on the same day that a man who embodied hope and promised change will usher in a new political era. But things are rarely so simple, and Animal Collective—a band that, like the Polyphonic Spree, has formerly traded in equal parts sunshine and bullshit—tempers their worldview with a pragmatic sense of realism. Consider opener “In the Flowers”: Avey Tare observes a girl whose euphoria he can't share because of his own loneliness, only to subsume that feeling into something genuinely sublime. “If I could just leave my body for the night,” he sings, “then we could be dancing/No more missing you while I am gone…And you'd smile and say I like this song/And then ours would meet them/We will recognize nothing's wrong.” The song works beautifully both as an ode to his wife and, more broadly, to the type of escapism the song's pulsing, tribal form provides.
The album's apparent embrace of domesticity only makes it timelier. When Panda Bear comments, “I don't mean to seem like I care about material things/I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls,” on standout cut “My Girls,” it's a perspective that rings true in the current economy. What makes these ideas—further expanded in tracks like “Daily Routine” and the delirious “Summertime Clothes”—work in context is that it feels as though Animal Collective is re-appropriating them from the political right. That domesticity has been part of a “values” platform for decades has given many of these ideas a decidedly conservative bent, but Animal Collective convey a real sense of joy in their proclamations that an appreciation for simplicity and the ability to find meaning in daily drudgery is not the exclusive domain of any one political party or social paradigm.
It's in that regard that Merriweather recalls the Flaming Lips at their best. There's a real humanity to the songs that makes them indelible. Panda Bear said in a recent interview that the band doesn't have a particular word for their latest work, but that “it's our own form of soul music.” He's right: From the call-to-arms of closer “Brothersport” to the mysticism in the peculiar folklore of “Lion In a Coma,” the album finds Animal Collective in constant marvel of, and gratitude for, both the world and the music that surrounds them. Soulful and almost structurally flawless (it's the most minor of complaints that the middle run of songs are all about a half-minute too long), Merriweather finds one of the most talented, most creative pop bands finally and gloriously figuring it all out.