John Lavin looks at Centipede Hz the ninth studio album from American experimental pop group Animal Collective.
When returning guitarist Deakin recently suggested that Animal Collective had taken a ‘left turn at weird town’ for their ninth album, Centipede Hz, alarm bells couldn’t help but ring. Here, after all, is a band who, when not releasing some of the most fantastically inventive psychedelic music of the past twelve years, have occasionally released some of the most whimsical and indulgent. Deakin, however, was presumably speaking to those fans who had come to AC through their last album, the wildly popular, electronica-based Merriweather Post Pavilion, because Centipede Hz is certainly not whimsical or indulgent. Nor is it excessively experimental. What it is does do however, is hark back to the two albums which preceded Merriweather: the more guitar-driven Feels and, in particular, Strawberry Jam.
A major reason for this is surely the return of Deakin to the fold (after taking a sabbatical during the making of Merriweather.) Perhaps because Avey Tare’s voice is more suited to guitars – he is surely in possession of the best scream since Kurt Cobain – this has also coincided with a return to his taking the role of front man, after he had appeared to have at least partly ceded it to Panda Bear on Merriweather. Certainly that album always felt more like the product of Panda Bear’s vision; almost like a big budget, all singing-all dancing remake of his mesmeric, critically acclaimed solo album, Person Pitch.
Centipede Hz on the other hand feels more like the work of four individual minds from the opening onwards. It begins in a very similar vein to Strawberry Jam, with a distorted voice repeating not ‘Boneface’ but announcing, ‘This is the news!’ before counting down to one. Immediately Panda Bear begins to hammer a cymbal before Geologist introduces some Silver Apples-style electronic bamping and then Deakin some particularly grungey guitar. But not for the time on this record the music quickly changes tack and we suddenly find ourselves in more melodic, mellotron/Americana-tinged terrain, and in the presence of an Avey Tare at his most ’80’s-indie yodel-esque, detailing a road trip to a place with, as we might expect, ‘styles I don’t recognise.’
Next up is the single, ‘Today’s Supernatural’, with its exhortation to, ‘Come on let let let let let let it go!/Eratic see-saw… now I don’t feel the same/ Come on let let let let let it go!/ The shifting easel.’ On first listen it had seemed, much like the non-album single ‘Honeycomb’ released earlier in the year, lost in sonic bluster. Unlike that song repeated listens reveal a melodically pure, sea shanty-tinged pop masterpiece about relationships and creativity, which, as its lyric suggests, shifts about all over the place. ‘But have you seen the clouds?/You should come on out/Today feels so supernatural’ sings Tare at one point, the confluence of his vocal with the suddenly dazed, almost choral-sounding music somehow managing to evoke the spirit of a drug-enhanced summer’s evening in Baltimore even as it crystallises a moment of creative epiphany.
After the minimalist electronica and chanting that characterised his last solo record, the slightly underwhelming Tomboy, Panda Bear’s ‘Rosie Oh’ is a simple delight: a pretty Beach Boy’s-esque song with a, by his standards, fairly traditional structure and ringing chorus of ‘I’d rather not/’Said No’. His other two songs on the album, meanwhile, are, as might perhaps be expected, the two songs closest to Merriweather in feel. But while the Panda Bear-led songs on that album were characterised by their use of repetition to near-ecstatic, dancefloor-filling effect (‘My Girls’, ‘Brothersport’); his songs on this album use repetition to more melancholic ends. ‘Pulleys’, in particular, is a gorgeous autumnal sounding lament for human natures ability to build cages and traps for itself, ending with the not quite-reassuring, ‘Tunnels and caves are magnificent places to escape to.’
The Tare-led ‘Applesauce’ meanwhile recalls both the ambience of the Feels album as well Merriweather track ‘Taste.’ Like that song it incorporates interchanging vocals to dizzying effect. Lyrically it returns to a frequent Tare preoccupation: the brilliance of food (think of ‘Peacebone’s ‘only the taste of your cooking can make me bow on the ground’ line.) Here he uses the life cycle of an apple as a metaphor for the human life cycle, a risky conceit that at times goes horribly wrong, as here: ‘Oh pink lady your days so distinguished are a movement so fluid/So smooth against the palm/Reminisce in the days when they all praised your sweet red delicious.’ But which at other times pays ample dividends and never more so than the moment in one of the songs many chorus-like strands when he and Panda joyously sing: ‘Take for me take for me pictures of valleys with apples hung/ Dangling dangling they will be released…’
‘Wide Eyed’, Deakin’s first vocal on a full AC studio album (he sang on the audio-visual concept album ODDSAC), maybe feels a little out of place. While the track is arranged with typical inventiveness and Deakin reveals himself to have a deep, rich, country-inflected voice somewhere between Arthur Lee and Glen Campbell , there is no getting away from the fact that it trades in the kind of retro-psychedelica that AC have always managed to avoid.
The album closes on the superbly catchy ‘Amanita’, with its answer to the question, ‘What are you gonna do?’:
-Go into the forest!/Until I really can’t remember my name/I’m gonna come back and things will be different/I’m gonna bring back some stories and games.
Which may as well be a manifesto for this restless, ceaselessly creative band. That after nine albums and twelve years together Animal Collective can still muster such an appetite for the creative process is the reason their albums always sound unique – both of each other and of anything else being made. Centipede Hz is no exception. It is full of exciting new ‘stories and games’ and should keep people more than happy until they return with more.