Conspicuous Consumption, #1
Animal Collective - Painting With
Animal Collective announced Painting With alongside the release of "Floridada"; a bouncy, summery jam that showed the band unironically sampling Wipeout and channeling fucking "Kokomo" of all things. For a band whose catalog is bereft of what you'd consider a traditional "single", it was an exhilarating statement of what Animal Collective could sound like if they cared to make fun, radio-friendly music instead of scoring art-house films.
I love it. It's a stupid-grin inducing song where Dave Portner and Noah Lennox trade off singing silly lyrics to one another, riffing about the charming weirdness of Florida, the tapestry of it's scenery and "bridge to nowhere" local politics. All of it continually builds to a crescendo of a chorus where it feels like Dave and Noah The Singers are competing with Dave and Noah The Musicians, surfing down a massive wave until it crashes and forms again. It was a thrilling and catchy enough single to blindly pre-order on vinyl, so I did.
Trends in purchasing music have changed in my lifetime, but I have always tried to pay artists and labels for creating art that resonates with me—even if I did have the occasional moral lapse in the form of a Napster rip or a BitTorrent seed. My first paycheck at Safeway went to filling the gaps in my parent's Steely Dan collection and over the course of eight years, grew into a collection of about a hundred and fifty CDs.
When I recently moved to Nashville though, I decided to give the majority of that collection away in a sudden panic attack of spontaneous minimalism. It was an obvious thing to do given the space confines of a cramped apartment and the ability to access all of the same tracks via a streaming service.
The iterative purge personally affected me more than I expected. Each CD, with enough effort, could be traced back to a particular time in my life where I thought the songs on it had all of the answers to whatever particular teenage angst or college aspiration I imbued in it. Each CD I unburdened myself of made me feel this unique brand of sadness that I typically only feel watching old home movies; an infinitesimal mourning ceremony for a more halcyon time. For some of the CD's, I couldn't even tell you why I felt so strongly for them, but the feeling was there. Why were albums from acts like Dave Mathews Band and 311, bands that I deride myself for having liked, so hard to part with?
I kept a few though. The only CD player I still own is in a car parked in Virginia, and that's where the last vestiges of my old collection remains—including the first Animal Collective album I ever purchased.
Acquired my sophomore year of college, Strawberry Jam was an important album for that time in my life. Themes of social anxiety permeate the albums best songs, and the fact they were performed with an energy of gusto and pride resonated with me at a time when I feel my personal fitness and self-identity was at an all-time low. It was album that championed the idea that your insecurities should be a badge of honor instead of a scarlet letter, and that your weirdness was but an essential part of the human experience.
It was inspiring. I have fond memories of when my college roommate and I would hijack the sound system at the parties the Earth Club house threw. We'd blare "Fireworks", singing and dancing madly to an inherently undanceable song with a chorus that sounds like a gaggle of Smurfs humming "ring-around-the-rosie". There was a drunken confidence to it, where if I had to guess, the only thing we were confident in was the fact we absolutely weren't getting laid that night. Regardless though, being able to indulge in our truest, goofiest selves in those moments were oddly empowering.
Animal Collective is by definition, a band with a deliberate identity crisis. With a cast of four consistent musicians that choose to appear and disappear on each album, the band has released work on a wide a sonic spectrum that spans from dissonant and barbaric tribal yelling to synth-driven and melodic familial longing.
Strawberry Jam sits the median of that spectrum: a landmark album where Animal Collective started adopting more traditional song structures even as the soundscapes themselves were still steeped in delightfully obtuse lyricism and guttural noise. Painting With, on the other hand is the pop-conclusion of that spectrum, where the band has distilled their unmatched sound into pop-sized bites and confidently embraced their true selves.
As much as I enjoyed Floridada, I believe the honor of "promotional single" should have gone to "Golden Gal", which better serves as the Painting With's thesis. The song begins with a sample of one of the titular Gal's (Blanche?) complaining about the change of the taste of Coca Cola. It's a fitting metaphor. Painting With is definitely Coke Zero compared to the band's previous albums: lighter, with that same Animal Collective flavor.
"Golden Gal" is a bouncy reflection on gender politics coming from three white dudes in their thirties, two of which are dads. It's an anthem to women that don't need men writing them anthems, with ham-fisted, distracting lyrics like "sexy genders bring some troubles to the fray". It's sounds as out of touch as it is well intentioned, and as awkward as it is confident. Much like "Floridada", "Golden Gal" feels inherently uncool to listen to and it's the albums best song.
The dad-tier confidence of Dave and Noah permeate the entire philosophy of this album as they make music that feels more fun to perform instead of creating the Next Important Album. The cocktail of tension and release, which has always been a staple of the bands best songs, has never come as swiftly or effortlessly. It's hard not to smile at a song like "The Burglers", which features Avey and Panda singing in tandem over an exponentially fuzzier and distressing synthesizer until it breaks into the musical equivalent of a victory lap after winning a 500 meter sprint.
The "diet soda" metaphor is one that cuts both ways though. While this is certainly an Animal Collective album, the bands attempts to densely pack their trademark nuances into sub-four minute tracks, where in previous albums they would give such concepts breathing room to build into songs that might be eight minutes or longer. Painting With is undoubtedly an album that trades in levity and efficiency, and one can make the argument that the band's depth and weightiness was lost in translation.
But is that OK?
Many didn't think so as Painting With didn't review particularly well. Pitchfork, the publication that famously elevated Animal Collective to mainstream-indie success (whatever that means) lamented the new songwriting approach of the album, criticizing how the new material suffered since it wasn't generated organically live on stage as was for previous albums:
"Old heads will tell you that the most exciting part of seeing them live was hearing songs months, sometimes years before they came out on record [...] The feeling of that moment is hard to describe, but it was something like standing in the light of a secret."
I see it differently. To me, what the author is lamenting is the passing of a band that couldn't possibly exist in perpetuity. Animal Collective isn't a band of young Montessori school stoners sitting in a drum circle, but adults that write music in between changing diapers and penning sports columns. Instead of slavishly honing in on the perfect "version" of a song, Painting With shows a band in a more relaxed posture creating something more "fun" than "important" for a change. Painting With represents a band that is willing to step out of the frame of their own prior successes. This is no more obviously symbolized by the album art itself: Dave, Noah and Brian portrayed as their most human and realist, finally revealing themselves amongst the abstract noise that has colored them for their entire career.
As Strawberry Jam helped me embrace my inner weirdness in 2008, I feel as though Painting With has inspired me in a different way in 2017. Painting With displays the bands courage to intentionally move past the zeitgeist to create weird, honest art for the sake of it. I'm 28 now and, as a consumer of music, I feel like I am far past the zeitgeist as well—far removed from my days working at the college radio station, marathon listening to the CD's in rotation trying to be "in the know" of the next big sound.
Something about the chasm between my appreciation of this album and the general critical perception of it really irked me though. Maybe I'm a crusty audio-luddite that's already receding into the parapets of of his own Hipsterdom, but I feel the farther removed from my "coolest age" of my early twenties, I'm finding that I'm having trouble finding music critics writing in a voice that I recognize similar to my own.
In light of this, I want to start creating music criticism of my own, based on the following criteria:
I want appraise the quality of the music that the niggling voice in my head compels me to purchase on vinyl.
I want to evaluate the autobiographical context of what draws me to ingesting an album, to better understand why an album resonates with me, and how an album has impacted my past or present place in life.
Starting with Painting With, this is what I hope to accomplish for every record in my newly-forming vinyl collection. Instead of owning shotgun blast of 150 CD's that characterized a small period of my lifetime, I want to own and evangelize 30 records or so that can speak for it's entirety.