Album Review: Animal Collective – Isn’t It Now?

[Domino; 2023]

As a kid, I preferred Lokum and Mochis, melon bonbons and milk-based treats, to the outrageous western candy types with toxic colours and borderline chemical smells. (Blue just isn’t a flavour, and strawberries shouldn’t exist in foam form.) Yet I still found myself fascinated by the wild optics of those treats, especially if they existed in piles.

It’s this same fascination which I find when approaching Animal Collective‘s more recent output. Over a seemingly endless stream of psychedelic main releases and obscure side projects, the American foursome has built a canon of luminous, diverse, aquatic, nocturnal, melting, vibrant and seasick albums – one stranger than the other. From the underappreciated masterpiece Danse Manatee to the magical milestone Merriweather Post Pavilion, the group had been one of the most lasting and influential of their era.

But then came a decade, roughly from Oddsac all the way to Panda Bear’s solo venture Buoys, when it seemed like the group had entered their ‘lost weekend’, with only two ‘traditional’ albums released under the band’s monicker. Centipede Hz and Painting With were divisive, diffuse projects that pushed the group’s sound into the territory of a saccharine jello-swamp. Both very enjoyable, occasionally confusing maximalist projects, they’ve become eclipsed by parallel solo-efforts and caked by soundtracks and experimental ambient projects. In a combined pile, giving off a pulsating glow, this era is alien and artificial, like a Lovecraftian entity which mutates ceaselessly, as horrifying as it is cool. Thankfully for those less in favor of tentacled beasts, the new decade saw the group clean their sound up.

A less celestial effort than its excellent, somewhat acoustic predecessor Time Skiffs, Isn’t It Now? is Animal Collective’s most self-assured record in 14 years. Sporting a 22-minute long centerpiece and prominently featuring all members – including the Deakin-led “Stride Rite” – it returns to the esoteric and exotic aura of their main work. Aiming for an atmosphere that transports the listener into the mythical forests of a Miyazaki film – rich in organic percussion and electronic micro-arrangements, but also breezy and wide open – it presents refined pop songs and choral experiments next to extended sonic tapestries. Updating the genre-bending ideas at the core of Feels, Strawberry Jam and Sung Tongs, Animal Collective unite the tones of past glories without ever sounding self-referential or dated. Take the Deerhunter-like groove at the end of opener “Soul Capturer”, or the Neu!-inspired Krautrock drumming that occupies the second half of “Genies Open”, and it’s clear the group is interested in expanding their stylistic palette.

But the greatest achievement of the record is that it manages to further the group’s path into more acoustic territory without abandoning their tapestry-like psychedelia. Their vocal harmonies and overall innovative structures have often been likened to the Beach Boys, but Isn’t It Now? actually sounds like it could belong seamlessly between Friends and Surf’s Up. It sidesteps overt electronic elements to conjure an analogue sound that the group hasn’t attempted in two decades – and better yet, they master it.

“Broken Zodiac” is a beautiful example of this – led by a distorted organ and Panda’s subtle drumming, it conjures the innocent beauty of sunday morning cartoons and Roy Orbison songs. And as with both of those, there’s a slight darkness within, as the lyrics pirouette around a soul that tries to save “angels kept in cages”. This darkness also permeates “Magicians from Baltimore”, an odd cousin of Black Sabbath’s “Space Caravan”, as Avey Tare beckons an estranged friend to reach out: “Call me when you get back to Baltimore / We’ll talk of things new / It might seem things are fine / But trouble takes its own time / And sometimes people too”. Drifting into a pseudo-Caribbean groove in its second half, the proposed trip to Avalon induces images of a mythical past that only the narrator can access. This return to mythical imagery seems to be a recurring motive, as “Soul Capturer” describes a being that could well be fame, addiction, death or the promise-fuelled vortex of the music industrial complex: “Soul Capturer feeds off of your dreaming / Soul Capturer watching through your eyes / It is your cook, you are its rook / It writes your book and keeps you trying / Soul Capturer always leaves you dry”.

Dividing the album in its middle, the 22-minute “Defeat” provides shades of Kosmische music, only interrupted by a short rhythmical middle-section. Perfectly capturing the charm of the band’s extended live renditions, it opens up the listener’s attention span and introduces the record’s second part, which consists of shorter tracks. “Gem & I” is an addictive singalong with processed background choir a la Joe Meek, and sees Panda grapple with the band’s iconic past: “Let’s take a minute / Crack open another beer / And let’s get in it / Another tip to the golden years / We’re probably in it”. Contrary to the lyrics, which confess insecurities and play with arrogance, the track is a humble earworm, signifying how effortless the group’s biggest achievements come.

“All the Clubs Are Broken” plays with a groove that could fit on a Wolf Parade release and could be the most British-sounding song the group has composed so far. Deakin’s “Stride Ride” is a sparkling and sincere piano ballad. A mindblowing song that presents generational cycles through the process of mourning, it is a highlight on an album of standouts, painfully bitter poetry within its glacial beauty: “Let’s invite all the songs that we wrote / So we’d know and let them go / And she’s lying sideways / Peering through the open blouse / Discovering her mother’s dying heart / And feels safe in the arms she’d grown old just to know”. 

Nostalgia has always been a part of Animal Collective’s appeal: as with Brian Wilson or Syd Barrett, the quest for childlike perspectives was at the heart of their costuming. But the inherent naivety was met with sinister implications. The alien worlds they conjured allowed for the realisation of cosmic horror, their Strawberry Jam could turn as sour as it was sweet, the dancing manatees overwhelm their human audience in sheer physical force. The deeper they ventured into their ocean, the more they welcomed hideous deep sea oddities. On Isn’t It Now?, the group abandons those implications in exchange for a deep, melancholic wistfulness that allows new listeners in. Where Centipede Hz, Spirit they’re gone… and Feels felt like partaking in a Willy Wonka facility tour (candy-casualties included), this newest effort is more interested in exploration than invention. Like following the development of a Miyazaki, there’s a sense of wonder to a fantastical realm, which harmonises in a dreamlike logic. Emotional archeology, for beginners and experts alike, it resides among the group’s five best efforts.