At the height of my obsession with Merriweather Post Pavilion I was doing a lot of “outdoor activities.” If you went to high school in a city, “outdoor activities” generally meant “hanging out in parks because you’re underage and don’t have any other unsupervised place to go.” For this reason, the party had to be portable. Before Bluetooth and before I owned a cellphone, I bought a small speaker that plugged into my iPod (rest easy, friend) and leaked battery acid because they were the cheapest I could find. Obviously, the sound was awful — the equivalent to listening to your phone aloud underwater — but I’d always want to play Merriweather Post Pavilion off of it as I sat around in damp grass doing teenager stuff. It sounded like what it felt like to grow up. It still does.
At the time of its release — 10 years ago this Sunday, although it leaked months earlier — critics hailed Merriweather Post Pavilion as future music. Really, it’s crossover music. At a time when the stereotypical sounds of ’00s indie were fading, Animal Collective were one of the bands that pushed the genre forward. Other groups that released massive albums in 2009 were all stretching their sonics out into new directions, resulting in a year full of what I suppose could be considered modern classics depending on how old you are. Veckatimest, Bitte Orca, and Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix all made it into the top 10 of our Gummys 50 Best Albums list that year. Merriweather Post Pavilion slotted in at #1.
The production on this album is so frenzied that it verges on busy. It was built on layers and layers of samples, and like everything Animal Collective have produced over their career, it is deeply weird music. But that weirdness translated to pop so readily on Merriweather Post Pavilion that it is inarguably their most accessible album, the one that even people who really hate this band will admit to loving. The hooks on it are so tight that all accompanying chaos falls out of frame.
To diehard Animal Collective fans, the popularity the band experienced in the year after Merriweather Post Pavilion debuted might’ve felt like an affront. The album isn’t nearly as spontaneous as the group’s previous work; Panda Bear and Avey Tare’s harmonies are high in the mix, giving the songs an anthemic, sing-along quality that encourages a participatory reaction from the listener. And, as trippy as the cover is, this is a neo-psychedelic album about growing up and experiencing practical, real-life problems. Around the time of its release, Noah Lennox told an interviewer that the songs on Merriweather Post Pavilion are all an attempt to regulate, to a certain extent, life as a performer and life as a parent and husband. “It’s always about family and the way our working lives are and the relationship between those two things,” he said. “How one sort of detracts from the other or one makes the other difficult is where the sadness or struggle comes from, and ultimately, is where the weight of the album lies.”
If form follows content, then Merriweather Post Pavilion doesn’t really sound all that heavy. It’s a blinding collection of pop songs; when any darkness creeps in it’s like a barely perceptible sunspot or a bad feeling that surfaces as you’re drifting off to sleep. Lyrically, Merriweather Post Pavilion focuses a great deal on finding pleasure and joy in taking care of people. Lennox, who’d just lost his father and became a father several years prior, sings about the ties that bind generations together. The best songs on this album ride on survival mantras that loop on and on, as if repeating the same phrase over and over again might somehow make it true.
There are many popular songs about being a dad but few of them discuss the very concrete problems that parents come up against when they decide to raise a family. Merriweather Post Pavilion’s biggest track, “My Girls,” is an absolute banger Lennox wrote about … wanting to buy a house and provide for his family in the aftermath of his father’s death. It’s an intensely personal and aspirational song, but it holds historic significance, too. It was 2008 when Animal Collective were working on Merriweather Post Pavilion, the same year the stock market crashed and a whole generation watched the future dissolve in front of them. As a teenager just beginning to understand how deeply impossible it can feel to grow up under late capitalism, 2008 was the year that I recognized that being an adult is actually really hard as layoffs and foreclosures swept the country and wrecked lives in the process.
Lennox, who was already living in Portugal at the time he started writing “My Girls,” has said that he wasn’t explicitly thinking about the recession when he wrote the song, that it was more about wanting to be able to creating a safe place for his family to thrive away from the rest of the world. But to anyone else, the anxiety of that particular moment in time is palpable on the chorus: “I don’t mean/ To seem like I care about material things/ Like my social status/ I just want/ Four walls and adobe slats/ For my girls.”
The production on Merriweather Post Pavilion is so immediate that it’s not always possible to detect the anxiety humming beneath the surface of these songs. There’s the tongue-twisting “Lion In A Coma”; the pulsating, squelchy “Taste”; the heat-exhausted “Summertime Clothes”; the seasick “Daily Routine.” And then there’s the somewhat downtempo “Also Frightened,” a song about noticing nature’s patterns and coming to an awareness that all lives inevitably reach their end. It is one of many Animal Collective songs that deals in a childlike sense of wonderment as its opening verse describes running in the woods, taking in the living canopy above and the puddles of stagnant water below. The chorus, though, delves into the spiritual and asks an unanswerable question: “Will it be just like I’m dreaming?” After spending a decade with this album, I now recognize the “it” to be the moment someone dies.
That interplay between the hyperactive, exuberant production and the burrowed sense of dread that arises with further listening is what makes Merriweather Post Pavilion feel special in an era of very special indie releases. The notion that even in death there is a life to celebrate and a future to turn to feels radically optimistic. “I’ve always had this drive to be as bluntly truthful about things. Whether I regret it later or not, there’s some sort of power to do that method,” Lennox said in an interview when asked to discuss “Brother Sport,” which was written for his brother, Matt, who was in a rough place after their dad passed. The resulting composition has the effect of cheering someone on from the sidelines of a World Cup game; the instrumental breakdown is all swirling synths and blaring sirens and chirping whistles. The amorphous cry of “MATT!” is barely discernible, the same way it would be if you were screaming it alongside a zillion other fans in a stadium.
Animal Collective wanted to make something outsized. They named this album Merriweather Post Pavilion after the amphitheater they would’ve only daydreamed of playing as teenagers growing up in the suburbs of Baltimore. Though they had to wait another two years after the album came out, they did eventually make it onto that stage. They didn’t play “My Girls,” which is almost funny considering that song is a big part of the reason they finally made it up there in the first place. After Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective leaned into their avant instincts, producing Centipede Hz (a record so excellent we still don’t understand it yet), Painting With, and last year’s Tangerine Reef. Lennox continues to write pop songs as a solo artist and has a new album on the way this year. Even the most ardent Animal Collective fans will agree that the band will never release an album like Merriweather Post Pavilion again. The argument is whether it’s their best.
Now that we’re 10 years into “the future,” we know that it sounds nothing like this album. Animal Collective don’t even sound anything like this album. Still, Merriweather Post Pavilion has a lasting power. There is a chant in the third verse of “Lion In A Coma” where all of the themes Animal Collective were dealing with coalesce. It goes like this: “Sometimes I’m not aware/ Where I am or what I care/ Sometimes I’m well to do/ But I don’t know what to do/ Sometimes I don’t agree/ With my thoughts on being free.” There are some albums I listen to because they remind me of a different point in my life when everything seemed a lot easier in hindsight. Merriweather Post Pavilion does something different. It attempts to untangle the one question that plagues every person who isn’t the heir to a great fortune: Where do I find some semblance of freedom within life’s many restrictions?