Animal! is the culmination of several hundred songs that Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s recorded in the wake of their debut, The Dust of Retreat. Its less enthusiastic companion album, Not Animal, is the label’s distillation of this same cache of songs (apparently Epic rejected Margot’s first playlist and compiled its own version, of which about half the songs were the same) that was subsequently rejected by the band. Bandleader Richard Edwards argued that Animal! was a more cohesive collection, and eventually a compromise was reached and it was decided that both versions would be released simultaneously.
The problem with being an art-rock band is that you almost always tend to forfeit lyrics for sound. The good thing about being an art-rock band is that you usually have a really interesting sound that’s worth the lyrical sacrifice. Not Bob Dylan? Hey, it’s cool. Spend 10 hours on 20 seconds of noise instead, like Margot claims to have done often here. Because of this, art-rock bands often get tagged as overindulgent, but believe it or not, Animal! is not nearly self-rewarding as efforts by, say, perennial masturbators Apollo Sunshine. Margot’s dedication to their music gives Animal! a pretty impressive sound at times, evoking a more aurally diverse Radiohead—or Arcade Fire in their best moments. Not to mention, Edwards is sounding more and more like Thom Yorke.
Despite this, Margot is most memorable when their lyrics side with the folk tendencies of their signature folk/baroque-pop/indie mixture. The same was true on Dust of Retreat, whose best songs did not veer into opaque imagery. Similarly, the best tracks on Animal! possess a lyrical concreteness: whereas “Mariel’s Brazen Overture” starts out telling a sort of folksy story but devolves when it ditches the narrative for symphonic indulgence, the unadorned refrain of “My Baby (Shoots Her Mouth Off)” evokes the longstanding delta blues tradition of wanting to murder your lover, while “Hello Vagina” is one of the few songs that succeeds in its delivery of abstract lyrics, but only because it surrounds a topic—the Heaven’s Gate cult—that calls for the bizarre.
The double-album nature of the album allows for an interesting comparison two alternate visions. Animal! is more cohesive than Not Animal, but even the best tracks from the former don’t stand out by much. Not Animal doesn’t cohere as well as its namesake, but in that sense, the tracks are more individually distinct. Not Animal also tends to favor Margot’s folkie side. It does not include “My Baby” or “Mariel” but it features the band’s concert standard “Broadripple Is Burning,” a folksy, pared-down narrative. “Hip Hip Hooray” begins similarly, before moving into a magnificent but brief tribute to Brian Wilson, and this particular moment of expansiveness works because it gestures toward larger musical themes rather than trying to articulate every single motif completely. Animal! wants a vast palette of sound, but their musical style, though impressive at times, is not a worthy enough altar on which to sacrifice lyrical competence. Not Animal is a more modest album that presents a shrewd view of Margot’s strengths and weaknesses, indicating that the band is most successful when it doesn’t try to be particularly complex.