Backtrack: Animal Collective Campfire Songs

Aging gracefully — particularly in the context of music — usually means that a band manages to inch their sound forward without losing sight of what they were doing at the beginning. The problem with this is that a lot of bands don’t really know who they are the beginning, and happen upon something that works almost by accident. Animal Collective sidestepped this by never actually doing the same thing twice.

On records like 2007’s Strawberry Jam and 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, they wrote songs that were dark but jubilant too. Lyrically, they tackled the concept of adulthood and the veiled wants and needs that come with that. The pains of responsibility and emotion. The general stoic nature of being someone that has kids or a life partner or both and can no longer afford the endless, selfish essential self-reflection of adolescence and beyond.

Listening to their earlier records, 2003’s Campfire Songs especially, is a trip.

Recorded in one take to MiniDisc on a porch in Maryland, the album seems designed to be inconsequential. It’s almost ambient, moving from strummed guitar track to strummed guitar track, with vocals — mostly indecipherable — that weave and moan through these moments of gummy prettiness. The Animal Collective that would grapple with the pitfalls and glory of adulthood years later was virtually nonexistent, Campfire Songs is just a bunch of dudes getting together to get weird because it’s what they felt like doing. It’s an open ended record. Not a mission statement or much of a statement about anything, really. It’s a nice album that is content with being nice. It’s as difficult or as deep as you want it to be.

In that sense, it’s weird to write about now. All the albums I’ve been writing about — from Gang Gang Dance’s God’s Money last week, all the way back to The Microphones’ The Glow Pt. 2 months and months ago –have an underlying sense of dread and insecurity to them. They’re the products of emotional turmoil.

So why Campfire Songs? It doesn’t feel like an especially heavy album, it doesn’t seem like it’s designed to reflect an unsure mind, it feels more like a band trying to figure out what they want to do with themselves, like watching a loose sketch take shape into something concrete. Their process is beautiful. “Moo Rah Rah Rain” is eleven minutes of whispers and field recordings of a rainstorm that cascades over distant leaves and splashes against a roof. It creates a world for Animal Collective to safely develop as a band until they were ready to burst into popular consciousness with Merriweather’s “My Girls.” It’s a world of intimacy and safety, of a band as a shared secret. It’s the sort of record that, had it come out a few decades earlier, would have been reissued as a private press rarity that gains more notoriety with each year of obscurity. It’s the beginning of a mythology they were able to patch together over the years. Campfire Songs isn’t really an explicit statement, it’s just an experiment that happened to go right.

It’s also worth noting that it’s very much a Fall record. It perfectly captures the few crisp weeks of slanted light that come after sticky summer and before debilitating winter. It’s a clear document of a season of transition, of the rare moment in time when a band that would go on to be known for making strong musical statements didn’t have to do anything but hang out on a porch and jam for a few hours. At the time, it felt like they were grasping at innocence that had already disappeared. Listening now, it’s clear they still had plenty left.