The first thing you see is the cover: a tastefully arranged heap of pulped strawberries that verges on the NSFW, suggesting a Gourmet photoshoot or a Hannibal delicacy. It’s as sweet as it is visceral. The first thing you hear is “Peacebone”: a whirlwind of splintery synthesizers, a wonder of ingratiating, effective power-pop; to this day, it remains Animal Collective’s most directly crowd-pleasing LP opening number. Merry, kooky, almost carnival-like, the lead single would run the very real risk of overshadowing the rest of Strawberry Jam and obscuring the record’s true, wearied tone; in some quarters, what celebrating Jam a decade on boils down to is celebrating the first time some strawman wiseass wondered, in the bowels of a lost message-board comment thread, “When will Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks snarkily cover ‘Peacebone’ live in concert?”
By the time Animal Collective recorded Jam — which was released 10 years ago today, September 11, 2007 — the band was seven years and six albums deep into something that was beginning to strongly resemble a career. Primary songwriters Dave “Avey Tare” Portner and Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox had become husbands. Everyone was closing in, swiftly, on 30 — an age where one’s awareness of mortality and self intensifies, where priorities shift. Old friends suddenly move away, pair up, fail to readily return calls, and, in some cases, become markedly different people. (Sometimes you become of those people.) If Jam’s trippy, freewheeling sonics mostly represent a natural evolution away from Feels’ dank mythical/playful intimacies and towards something more autumnal, its sentiments pine, elegiacally, for a waning youth.
Witness how the choppy, hectic chants of “Chores” wind gradually down, in attempted defiance of nature’s tendency to slowly withhold drive and energy as we age. Consider “Fireworks,” an epic, piano-stabbed paean to cohabitation, which can’t quite decide whether love is cozy or entombing. Burbling, carefree “Unsolved Mysteries” cages an evocative meditation on nostalgia. Gorgeous and evocative, “For Reverend Green” is musically the Animal Collective equivalent of a harvest anthem; lyrically, though, it’s an intra-band pep talk shuffled with picayune reportage and health-manic notes-to-self, all delivered by with a slightly desperate edge by Portner. Even on the outwardly goofy “Peacebone,” howlers like “a blowout does not mean I will have a good night” and “the other side of takeout is mildew on rice/ and an obsession with the past is like a dead fly” are cute within their immediate, non-sequitur strewn context but telling given the rest of Jam. The cover-art viscera is hardly coincidental. There’s a sadness to this music that these guys had never expressed.
Animal Collective are no strangers to artistic near-impenetrability; the Danse Macabre/Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished combo is capable of stymieing the most hardened of Fusetron Sound regulars. But upon its release, Strawberry Jam proved a tough nut to crack for me — the first moment in my fandom when I had to ask myself how committed I really was. Some of this was probably timing. When I first encountered these songs, I’d been a new father for a few months and was undergoing my own personal warping of priorities. Jam didn’t melt my mind like AnCo’s early records did. It didn’t tickle me the way Sung Tongs could, or offer Feels’ swamp-monster massages. It took a while to truly grasp what the album had to say, even as I was actually in the process of living my own version of it. A year and a half later, Merriweather Post Pavilion would conquer the indie-rock world, overshadowing Strawberry Jam somewhat; in retrospect, that’s a damn shame. And all the more reason to celebrate it today.