I’ve liked the idea of Animal Collective since I first heard of them many years ago. I’ve been trying to like the reality since Sung Tongs, the first album of theirs that I heard, downloaded from a P2P network in midst of that crazy time when I tried to consume every record worth hearing. I’d listened to every record since, including Panda Bear’s second solo album, the much-acclaimed Person Pitch, but for the longest time I don’t like them. In fact, I pretty much hated their music.
Given my fondness for the things that people usually compare Animal Collective to – Caribou, Grizzly Bear, 60s psych music, electronica, The Beach Boys, dance music, Tropicalia, 70s fusion jazz, My Bloody Valentine, etcetera etcetera – and the fact that I’m not at all adverse to “experimental” music, it frustrated me that I didn’t click with them. They seemed amateurish and wrong to me, their records the result of accidents and happenstance rather than intention and creativity, the sound all wrong. I couldn’t touch their music. I couldn’t recall any of it. It gave me a headache, made me lose concentration, prevented my mind from focussing on it and actually listening.
But despite this I was actually looking forward to Merriweather Post Pavillion, because early talk about it from people I know seemed to say they’d made a much more danceable, and, crucially, controlled record than they had previously. Screamadelica was mentioned as a comparison point, which would make me feel a little sick if it was Keane we were talking about, but with Animal Collective it made me hopeful; maybe finally it would click for me?
For many months I struggled with Merriweather Post Pavillion and got nothing out of it: no emotion, no excitement, no visceral or sensual or intellectual thrill. It seemed to me like a giant, beautiful butterfly, flapping its wings right in my face; occasionally I got a sense of something wonderful and strange, but too close to focus on, too distracting to get involved with, the colours overlapping and motion-blurred and headache-inducing. To me it was a distracted, treble-y mess, mixed illogically and rendered indistinct and uncomfortable. None of the sounds seemed real to me, seemed like actual sound, actual music, however abstracted; it didn’t even seem like noise, just digital interference. The way the sleeve design danced in front of your eyes and made you feel sick? The music did the same.
I didn’t understand. So many people whose opinion I respect liked this band, and this record in particular. People expressed surprise when I said I couldn’t stand them. I kept trying. I kept trying. Hoping that one day it’d click. Nothing annoys me more than not getting joy out of music that other people say they get joy from. But I got nothing from Merriweather beyond than a headache.
Until one day in late spring / early summer, when the weather turned, and we could throw open the huge windows of the flat we lived in at the time and let the sun in. A big moment of truth came when I played Merriweather on our proper big hi-fi, rather than listening to it through headphones or our iPod dock, with the sun streaming in. Merriweather didn’t suit winter weather. The hi-fi had been blocked by an old sofa we were waiting to get rid of, and hadn’t been listened to properly in months; I’d fallen out of love with it and what it did for music. As I’ve said elsewhere, 2008 was not an inspirational musical year for me.
So at last I was properly swept away as the Merriweather finally became the joyous psychedelic explosion of melody and rhythm that everyone told me it was. “My Girls” so sweet, so humble, and so catchy; “Summertime Clothes” so hooky, so stereophonically groovy; “No More Running” so elegiac and beautiful; “Bluish” so distractedly horny; “Brother Sport” so hypnotic and triumphant. Snatches of melodies lodged themselves in my head for the rest of the year, and when the Fall Be Kind EP came out around Christmas time I was blown away by “What Would I Want? Sky” just as much as, if not more than, anything on Merriweather itself.
I went back to their old records, and clicked again with Sung Tongs, fell for Feels, and had an epiphany with Panda Bear’s Person Pitch. I still can’t listen to Strawberry Jam, though, and come 2012 and Merriweather’s follow-up, Centipede Hz, I didn’t have the energy to go through a chrysalis phase like the one Merriweather had needed; aside from a couple of songs, I haven’t heard it, and I’m not sure I will. Four years on I barely revisit Merriweather, but for the sake of that summer and autumn when Animal Collective made perfect sense to me, I’m glad I did.