It Never Hurts to Mask: Animal Collective?s freak-rock front cloaks its pop instincts.
It Never Hurts to Mask: Animal Collective?s freak-rock front cloaks its pop instincts.

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Conventional wisdom says that Animal Collective is the heir to a long tradition of gifted loonies—Brian Wilson and Pink Floyd through krautrock and prog, across Brian Eno’s noisier moments and into the weirder side of ’80s and ’90s indie rock. All those references are apt in one way or another, at least on the surface. The Baltimore-Brooklyn band, with its stylistic switchbacks and quirkily named members, has cultivated enough mystique to be uttered in the same bloggy breath with the paragons of psychedelia and experimentalism. But listen to the group’s new album, Strawberry Jam, and it’s clear these Animals are still missing an essential part of the aesthetic. The album is psych-rock, sure, but it’s a kiddie-cereal, quasi-commercial, well-adjusted version. It’s mostly crackle and pop, with hardly any fear and loathing.

And that’s a shame. Strawberry Jam is perfectly catchy, and the familiar Animal Collective elements are in place: deliberately primitive rhythms, voices soaked in echoes and effects, counterintuitive blasts of synths and guitars, and oddball sonic climaxes. Compared to 2005’s spacey, oft-praised Feels, the new disc is louder, the mix is more stout, and the band more frequently loses itself in adrenalin—or at least serotonin. But when it comes to psychedelia, firmness of conviction doesn’t equal depth of introspection. You can’t ride the snake if you don’t go to the desert—or however you want to metaphorically put it. (I’m inclined to disregard the fact that the band recorded Strawberry Jam in Arizona. Isn’t that state mostly suburbs by now?)

The songs are consistently trippy—in the broadest sense of the term—and they do have moments of bizarrely singular beauty. David “Avey Tare” Portner’s mad-and-nimble vocals are the perfect counterpoint to the choppy, processed beat of “For Reverend Green.” The swirly breakdown of “Chores,” which Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox steers with the same Beach Boysnstyle elegance that colors his solo work, could be from the Appalachia of another dimension. And the warped, spoken vocals on “#1” borrow from Ween without bringing along any of that band’s snarky baggage.

But people are used to that kind of thing from Animal Collective. Despite toying with chaos, the band’s four members prefer their catharsis to be cute not revelatory, coy not raw. There are no demons here, at least not the kind that felled Wilson and Barrett, added nihilism to Can’s grooves, made Eno more than just a producer, or turned Glenn Branca’s ear to the dark side. As Panda Bear puts it on “Chores”: “I only want the time to do one thing that I like/I want to get so stoned and take a walk out in the light prism.”

It’s not exactly a risk, though, unless the so-called light prism is more likely to fry a dude’s brain than simply provide illumination. Somehow I don’t think Mr. Bear is questing for danger here. (When left to his own devices, he’s capable of expanding on psych-rock’s core conflicts. His solo disc from earlier this year, Person Pitch, is a constant battle between sublime harmonies and strong undercurrents of loneliness. The sweetness wins out, but it’s not an easy victory.) When Strawberry Jam does threaten to go absolutely bonkers—as on the clangy-stompy sections of “Cuckoo Cuckoo,” when Avey Tare’s vocals are particularly abrasive—there’s still an audible sense of restraint. Meanwhile, I keep hoping to be frightened.

All of this has an obvious counterargument, of course: It’s been said many times over that Animal Collective is special because it offers a brand of musical innocence—the adventurism of the early paisley era without the paisley and the Britishness. “Peacebone,” the album’s opener, is the perfect example of this: It’s disorienting, blippy and throbbing, with left-field vocal whooshes that sound startling through headphones. But the song is ultimately more upbeat than edgy. Avey Tare sings about people’s insides and whatnot: “When I feel like I’m stealing/I keep myself from hearing God/I mean, the taste of your cooking can make me bow on the ground/It was the clouds that called the mountains/It was the mountains that made the kids scream.” That’s undoubtedly escapist. But what makes Avey Tare scream? What’s out there, on the psychedelic horizon, that could make him pee his pants? I wanna hear about that.