There’s a conversation that emerges naturally surrounding every band or artist that survives for longer than four or five LPs. And that conversation always begins with some variation on the following question: “What is the ideal iteration of [band/artist X]?” At the risk of triggering arguments and fistfights, I’ll argue that 2004’s Sung Tongs and 2005’s Feels represent the on-wax ideal of Animal Collective. Playful and darkly stoned, that one-two LP punch teemed with a sense of mystery, texture, and joy, even as they courted pop. Prior releases were brilliant yet scattered and outre; subsequent releases were patchy (2007’s Strawberry Jam) or tilted toward extremes of lightness (2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion) or sheer oomph (2012’s Centipede Hz). At a certain point, solo joints like Panda Bear’s Tomboy and Avey Tare’s Down There became as or more compelling than the proper group LPs.
From the iridescent stutter that kicks off “FloriDada” to the oompa-loompa boil that ushers out “Recycling,” Painting With is the sound of Animal Collective rediscovering and doubling down on a sense of LP-length focus that’s been sorely missed. This is the indie-rock equivalent of Grant Morrison’s fabled run on Doom Patrol: pleasure and weirdness and esoterica oozing from every pore and crevice, everyone’s palms stained with Crayola after marathon bouts of fingerpainting, every songwriting gear smooth, oiled, and full-on psychoactive.
The amphibian, Slinky-like bass that anchors “FloriDada” is an audio meal in and of itself, but upstairs the party’s a rager; Br’ers Bear and Tare passing the microphone in a blur as effects-enabled psychedelic pyrotechnics burst all around them. To be sure, there’s a lot going on there — the lithe percussive rumble, that “Wipeout!” wink! — yet it’s exhilarating, never leaden. That’s the miracle of Painting With overall: Panda Bear, Avey Tare, and the Geologist (Deakin sat this one out) have constructed an album that bangs and tickles, that confuses and beguiles, while coming across as so linear and balanced that you’re unlikely to catch yourself counting calories or triple-checking its running time.
The day-glo “Natural Selection” could be the soundtrack to a lost 8-bit NES classic where Mega Man teaches Mario and Luigi how to skate pools in sub-gravity on the moon while Weird Al offers play-by-play. The bumptious “Summing The” employs vocal shards as pugilist forces. The delirious, warm-throated “On Delay” sends keyboards and beats scurrying madly between channels. “Vertical” comes on like a chameleonic mash-up of crossover Beck and prime Eric Copeland, presenting as hip-hop swagger, ’80s synth-Cheez Whiz, or acid-trip WTF, depending on the angle you’re viewing it from. The bungee-bounce of “Recycling” doesn’t quite manage to disguise a fascination with modern composition that I hope these guys pursue further.
Not everything works. The Golden Girls-quoting “Golden Gal” gifts delicious melodies and harmonies to an eye-rollingly daft conceit. “Bagels In Kiev” and “The Burglars,” which are both hyperactive in hackneyed ways, probably should’ve been relegated to B-side status. And as much as Painting With dials back the bombast and sample-dispensing that plagued Centipede Hz four years ago, too often the vocals seem to fly by in a panicked jibber-jabber, as if the band has too much to say, and insist upon talking over one another in order to say it.
And maybe that’s the rub — not just here, but for the last couple LPs. Panda Bear resides in Lisbon, Portugal; the Geologist calls Washington, D.C. home; while Avey Tare has lived in Los Angeles for the last few years. These guys have been friends for 20 years, with Animal Collective as the common thread that connects and unites them. Telephone calls with longtime pals are tough to arrange, execute, and complete, and can be awkwardly empty or adrenalized gab-fests; life is constantly pulling everyone in different directions. So just try to imagine what the dynamics involved are when you’re not just catching up, but cutting an album that you’ll spend months touring the world behind. Given the alternative, we should be thankful that Animal Collective’s studio reconnections lean toward the gabby, frenetic end of the spectrum.
But — but — what this also means is that Painting With doesn’t really ever quite yield. (“Gal” is the closest it comes.) It doesn’t give the listener much opportunity to swoon, to subside, to truly entrance; the album lacks anything approaching a “Loch Raven” or a “No More Runnin'” or a “#1″: a breather where the audience can look around and recognize that all we’re hopelessly lost in an Enchanted Forest and never want to be found. Painting With brings Animal Collective closer to a higher-fi version of their ideal, but there’s still a gap remaining for these guys to close in order to reach it and achieve their fullest possible potential as a studio entity. This album represents hope.
Painting With is out 2/19 via Domino.