Animal Collective’s Painting With contains a catty sample from The Golden Girls: “No, Blanche, she’s upset because they keep changing the taste of coke.” Ripped at random from a YouTube compilation of Bea Arthur one-liners, the snippet might have registered as a bitter missive against fans who want the band to keep doing the same thing. But each new phase of Animal Collective’s artistic progression—from freak-folk acoustic meanderings to harsh noise and drone, from gurgling electronica to blissed-out psychedelia—has been generally so well received, by critics and fans alike, that it’s more likely a self-referential joke at their own expense.
And joking would be a good look for a band that’s been many things to many people, but rarely funny. In fact, Animal Collective’s technique, no matter what sonic palette its been applied to, has remained so hermetic that emotional engagement tends to be more theoretical than literal. Even when the group started broaching concerns about fatherhood and middle-aged restlessness on 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, they still devoted more songwriting detail to the material used to build their domestic spaces than the people actually occupying them.
Painting With manages to transcend all this even though the album neither develops the mature themes of Merriweather Post Pavilion nor does its self-aware humor add up to much more than a fringe detail. It’s as weird an album as any Animal Collective has made (“Summing the Wretch” reads like an Adventure Time episode, and it sounds like one too), but for both its earnest, uninhibited sense of play and the impeccable pop craft that organizes it all, underlying even its most eccentric moments, Painting With is also a uniquely affecting one.
None of the songs here try to steal attention from each other, they exist democratically—much like the front-to-back solid Ramones albums the band has cited as an influence. Gone are the noodling improv pieces and lengthy ambient interludes. Most tellingly, gone is the dense coating of reverb that’s fogged over the band’s sonics since at least 2005’s Feels. Much like Dirty Projectors’ Swing Lo Magellan, the focus is mostly on verse/chorus/verse structure—along with what’s always been an acquired-taste vocal technique, finding its most accessible expression in this album’s concise formula.
Where the softer, Brian Wilson-esque vocals of Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear) seemed in short supply on 2012’s Centipede Hz, the singer’s interplay with wild-child partner Dave Portner (a.k.a. Avey Tare) throughout Painting With represents one of the album’s greatest strengths. On “FloriDada” (which swipes the riff from “Wipeout” and boasts a beat that’s just a few BPMs removed from Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove”), “Vertical,” and “Summing the Wretch,” the two singers volley mesmerizing counter-melodies and hooks like an ADD-addled Lennon-McCartney.
When Portner and Lennox work more independently of each other, the results are just as rewarding. The latter’s “Natural Selection,” with its oom-pah-pah rhythm and stuttering, phase-shifted vocals, represents a more promising direction to take his Panda Bear solo project than last year’s fraught and unwieldy Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. On “Golden Gal,” which builds out from its Golden Girls soundbite into an aspirational anthem of empathy for the opposite gender, Portner walks a day in his object of affection’s shoes, concluding: “You think the gals should be so comfortable these days/But sexy genders bring some trouble to the fray.” Recognition of his implicit role in objectification is met with a request to be “reminded” of a woman’s strength every day, and the sweetly sung chorus, which finds Portner exercising a part of his register he hasn’t for quite some time, sells the sentiment’s sincerity.
Painting With’s only real weakness is a midsection that perhaps settles too comfortably into its propulsive pace. But for an album working with this one’s particular frames of reference (not just the Ramones, but also a broad swath of commercial ’60s pop bands, including early Beach Boys, Beatles, and the Zombies), the sameness seems like almost a byproduct of formula-honed ambition. This is, after all, Animal Collective’s attempt at stuffing a decade’s worth of changing tastes into 12 disciplined, bite-sized songs. What’s most impressive is that they accomplish this feat without ever letting accessibility compromise their individual preferences as artists, and vice versa.