Indie

‘Time Skiffs’ Is Animal Collective’s Comeback Record

When was the last time you heard somebody complain about hipsters? Remember when that was a thing? When people complain about hipsters in 2022, they use a different word: millennial. Beyond the generational connotations of the term, “millennial” is also assumed to mean “trend-hopping city-dwelling striver in their 20s who older people find highly annoying.” That’s what “hipster” used to signify.

Hipster hysteria peaked around 2010. That year, New York magazine published an article called “What Was The Hipster?” that, perhaps presciently, indicated that the phenomenon had already peaked. Written in the dense language of an anthropological study, “What Was The Hipster?” included a section on the so-called “Hipster Primitive Moment” that “recovered the sound and symbols of pastoral innocence with an irony so fused into the artworks it was no longer visible.” Indie rock was singled out for leading “the artistry of this phase,” and certain attributes of notable aughts-era bands were enumerated — they have a thing for nature, they are bit a childish, they are obsessed with music of the 1960s, they are theatrical, they sometimes wear funny costumes, they are basically hippies (though likely won’t identify as such).

One band singled out in the article, of course, was Animal Collective, among the best and most acclaimed indie acts of the era, whose breakthrough 2004 album Sung Tongs was once described by Pitchfork’s Mike Powell (in far more sympathetic fashion) as a “children’s album” made up of “sing-alongs, nursery rhymes [and] lullabies.” AnCo’s cultural significance peaked along with that of hipster hysteria, with their most commercially successful LP, 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, which also topped that year’s Pazz & Jop critic’s poll in the Village Voice.

Of course, this being the age of hipster hysteria, there were also plenty of people who hated Merriweather Post Pavilion, an album that streamlined the anarchy of past Animal Collective releases with canny electro-pop hooks. This included the braintrust at the Village Voice, which ran a column adjacent to the poll (which was also topped by other “Hipster Primitive” acts such as Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors) admonishing voters for creating “the most whimsically insular prissy-pants indie-rock-centric Top 10 albums list in Pazz & Jop history.” But the conversation about Animal Collective went beyond merely debating their musical merits. Back then, people questioned whether people actually liked them, or if this was an illusion created by chattering nerds on the internet.

Some things to remember about this moment for those who weren’t around or have forgotten: The record industry was in free fall and presumed dead. Pop stardom seemed like it could be a thing of the past (sort of). Streaming had not yet arrived to save the day (sort of). Therefore, you couldn’t just peek at an artist’s clicks to get a sense of their reach. Meanwhile, terms like “monoculture” were still used with a straight face. Facebook was in the early stages of being adopted by boomers. People were just beginning to understand that the internet didn’t so much connect them to everybody as much as encase in them in a bubble with a select group of somebodies. The world we’re sick of now was busy being born.

In the gap between the collapse of the traditional media and the rise of our current social media-streaming-algorithm-clickapalooza, it really was hard to discern what exactly “mattered.” In a way this still happens today whenever someone distinguishes “Twitter reality” from reality reality or expresses pride in their ignorance over the latest TikTok fad. But in the age of hipster hysteria, the contempt for internet-fueled stars was rooted in genuine confusion over a rapidly changing paradigm. In the case of Animal Collective, whose thorny and unwieldy (and, at its best, mind-blowing) experimental pop at times seemed expressly designed to irritate listeners, the issue was compounded: Does anybody for real like this shit? was a sentiment felt by many.

You can feel that attitude permeating the Voice’s crack about “insular prissy-pants indie-rock.” But the complaints also came from inside the house. The blogger Carles, pranksterish proprietor of the zeitgesit-y blog (here’s that word again) Hipster Runoff, called Animal Collective “a band created by/for/on the internet.” While Carles’ mix of deadpan irony and genuine criticism could be difficult to decode, this was clearly meant as a putdown. “Where does Animal Collective realistically sit in this hierarchy of critical acclaim vs. pop appeal vs. actually selling albums?” he wrote in 2009. “I’m not sure if this internet-centric praise economy for Animal Collective means that they are ‘bigger’ than I think they are, or if we are just so caught up in what’s happening on the internet that we fail to realize ‘these conceptual bands don’t matter to most people and probably never will.’”

The sum total of the admonishments from the Village Voice and Hipster Runoff (among other combatants) coming at Merriweather Post Pavilion from different directions is that the referees were thoroughly worked. Never again would critics dare to put a group as strange, unpredictable, noisy, and polarizing as Animal Collective at the center of the conversation. Today, it’s painfully easy to see how popular things are. We live in a world in which streaming figures for any song are available for all to see. (“My Girls” has been played more than 43 million times on Spotify — not bad!) And this has established a hierarchy that has made it all but impossible for a band like AnCo to bug as many people as they once did.

It’s hard for me to believe that all of this didn’t affect Animal Collective. Formed in Baltimore in 2003, AnCo never seemed particularly comfortable in the spotlight, and being turned into a lightning rod must have felt like an odd turn of events for dudes content to screw around endlessly with floor toms and delay pedals. In 2012, they released their ninth album, Centipede Hz, and the consensus that it was a disappointment formed as quickly as the rush to declare Merriweather Post Pavilion a masterpiece had been three years prior.

When I interviewed Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear, at the time, I asked him the same question several different ways: Did you do this on purpose? Are you intentionally trying to chase most of your audience away? And Lennox said “no” in several different ways. But I didn’t believe him then, and I’m not sure I believe him now. Animal Collective undeniably was entering a wilderness period. They put out another album, 2016’s Painting With, that also garnered mixed reviews. But by then the furor around the band had quieted considerably. Even the band members — Lennox, Dave Portner, Josh Dibb, and Brian Weitz — appeared more interested in collaborating on side projects and solo albums than laboring under the (the sometimes bothersome) Animal Collective banner.

Now comes Time Skiffs, the first Animal Collective album in six years, which comes out next week. I don’t know if this record will reach listeners beyond their cult of devotees, but it certainly sounds like an attempt by the animals to leave the wilderness. After two difficult (though in my estimation underrated) records, Time Skiffs is the sequel to Merriweather Post Pavilion that many fans probably would have wanted a decade ago.

What do I mean by that? Let’s start with the pair of songs that open the album. They are both bottom-heavy, harmony-rich, and immediate indie-pop songs with grabby choruses in the vein of “My Girls” and “Summertime Girls.” The basslines are slippery and the synths are warm and zippy. It’s pretty much as close to “normal” as Animal Collective gets, and it’s remarkable how much of Time Skiffs colors within those very same lines. As the album unfolds, tracks like “Walker” and “We Go Back” amble along at the same amiable mid-tempo pace. Animal Collective’s music no longer emulates the sonic meltdowns of Brian Wilson’s most drugged-out Smile outtakes. Time Skiffs signals the beginning of their Full House period.

Of course, sanding the rough and wooly edges from the music is a “for better or worse” proposition with this band. An essential element of Animal Collective — and what links them to the jam bands to which detractors once compared them as an attempted insult — is their willingness to fail in pursuit of some transcendent (or simply foolish) experiment. They were exciting because their music always teetered on the brink of a complete shit show; oftentimes, it was a deliberate shit show that the listener was asked to piece together into music in their own imaginations. The way that melodies suddenly arrive from out of the chaos before being swallowed up again in violent fits of screaming and percussion on masterpieces such as 2005’s Feels and 2007’s Strawberry Jam make those records exhilarating listens even now. It’s why I’ve come to appreciate even the maligned 2010s albums, which for all of their faults still throb with a pounding, unruly, and unceasingly questing energy.

Time Skiffs sometimes sounds a little, well, straight by comparison. What’s perverse about this record is that it’s the “accessible” comeback that arrives 10 years after the moment when it have had the most impact. We know for sure exactly how many care about Animal Collective now, and it’s a rather select group.

But if I may address my fellow Collectivists: They still are capable of sounding only like themselves. Yes, the album’s most experimental track, “Strung With Everything,” doesn’t hit the same dynamic peaks of Strawberry Jam. And the album’s prettiest number “Prester John” can’t approach the breathtaking ambient tunes on Feels. But if this album proves anything, it’s that the old assertion that these guys serve up “pastoral innocence infused with irony” was always a load of bunk. Animal Collective’s music has forever sounded to my ears like an attempt to move beyond conventional rock song structures in order to express pure and unfettered emotion, like peeling away the skin, muscles, and nervous system from the human body to expose the raw, primal, beating heat underneath.

There is something “child-like” about that, I suppose, though on Time Skiffs there’s no mistaking that this is a band with some mileage on the tires. What it does not resemble, however, is anything remotely “hipster.” Even back in 2009, when the biggest song from their biggest record was about being a dad, they were too earnest for that tag. Rather, they are like their namesake: wild, guileless, and free.

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