Dissenting on the perplexingly acclaimed Merriweather Post Pavilion
Maybe some people get off on so-called contrarianism but it’s never felt good to me.
It’s a lurch in my stomach when it’s becoming apparent that the community of People Who Pay Attention to the Same Things as Me are falling in love with an album I maybe liked, put away, and returned only to find it doesn’t hold up to the closer scrutiny I’ve been urged to grant it. It sucks reading things on the page that aren’t engaging or stimulating you in practice. Sometimes a discovery can still be made; the agreeable-to-pretty melodies of Kacey Musgraves’ Pazz-and-Jop-winning Golden Hour sank under the featherweight of lyrics that simply didn’t convey much fun or emotion, just lightness, which is admittedly all a lot of people needed in 2018.
In 2009, Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion won Pazz and Jop, too, and with the possible exception of LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver in 2007, it was the moment that their biggest boosters, Pitchfork, cemented themselves as the dominant influence in music criticism. It wasn’t a bad thing that the generational baton was finally passed beyond the point where Bob Dylan could still beat the likes of Radiohead, the Strokes and TV on the Radio, acts who excited people with youthful energy or promising innovations.
But it was bad that during the entirety of Pitchfork’s reign as the gatekeepers of music’s future, that not a single woman won the Critics’ poll between 1999 and 2010 after four of them did in the ‘90s. When one finally did — tUnE-yArDs in 2011 — it blindsided us because even then, another straight white male indie phenomenon, Bon Iver, was yet again being poised above everyone else. It was also during Pitchfork’s unstoppable streak of affecting both sales and the critical landscape, that already successful women like Courtney Love, Liz Phair, and Kathleen Hanna had their legacies diminished, and even a new one that popped up with unanimous acclaim, M.I.A., was quickly deposed as a cultural authority because of a well-placed truffle fry. (Even PJ Harvey’s fantastic, Kid A-beating/tying Pazz runner-up Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea only got a 5.5 from Pitchfork).
The women whose reviews did consistently survive this period — Joanna Newsom, Bjork, Kate Bush, Victoria Legrand of Beach House — were significantly less outwardly humorous or political in their art, and much more abstract about it if at all. There were exceptions, of course: the great Karin Dreijer of the Knife and Fever Ray was largely introduced to the world when the Knife’s Silent Shout became Pitchfork’s first Album of the Year by a woman, and St. Vincent and Janelle Monáe were regular recipients of the storied Best New Music designation. (Though it’s unfortunate that their most recent, most playful, political, sexually liberated and best albums, MASSEDUCTION and Dirty Computer respectively, were also the ones to end that streak.)
This is not Animal Collective’s fault. And neither is their success either; artistically ambitious but personally unassuming, they’re downright rubes compared to coffee baron/MSG-finesser/breaker-upper-taker-backer James Murphy, the only person who isn’t a member of Death Cab for Cutie to ever namedrop Can as part of a hustle to go number-one. They were haplessly anointed to maybe the briefest-reigning Only Band That Matters post and just as haplessly returned to semi-obscurity with 2012’s Centipede Hz and 2016’s Painting With, albums as pretty-good as the others that failed to make an emotional connection with their base. This makes it harder to hate them in retrospect, which I acted like I did in 2009 primarily because I was mourning the loss of Blender, the best music magazine in existence, and because I was frustrated by their supporters’ converse dismissal of music that was political, funny or female at the time.
AnCo’s earnest statements like “I think it’s all right to feel human now” and “I just want four walls and adobe slats for my girls” struck me as facile, almost child-like convictions after the complex bloodletting of Rid of Me and Exile in Guyville or even the anxious dystopianism of OK Computer set the bar for critical adulation in the ‘90s. The crowing over drum-circle/loop-pedal folkies flipping the script by discovering synths and gesturing at house, or by sampling the Grateful Dead, still feel like non-events to me. And because they were showered with praise and privilege for these neat but hardly riveting developments, at a time when Miranda Lambert was emerging as the best songwriter of her generation, or Rilo Kiley was laughed out of the room for inventing indie’s now-requisite obsession with R&B and Fleetwood Mac, I hated them.
VIDEO: Animal Collective – “My Girls”
I don’t hate them. But when I think about the question of why I could eat up such dizzying, groundbreaking sonic totalities as Richard D. James Album, Endtroducing… DJ Shadow, and Vanishing Point in the ‘90s (not to mention Arular or BiRd-BrAiNs at the time), the answer is still easy: Animal Collective aren’t as good. But when they came close, it wasn’t usually on Merriweather Post Pavilion, either.
A shrugger of Sung Tongs and admirer of Feels, I was finally captivated fully by Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Deakin and Geologist within the first seconds of 2007’s Strawberry Jam, when a voice muttered “bonefish” and the squiggliest music I have ever heard in my life is what followed. “Peacebone” was the sound of pieces coming together, the noise-pop I never knew I needed from this band, with a real (jaunty) beat, a hooky chorus, and downright rock’n’roll call-response screaming in the breakdown. Strawberry Jam never topped its opener but it maintained a deft balance between songform and aural sensation on small epics like “For Reverend Green” and raveups like “Chores” and “Winter Wonderland” that pushed against claustrophobic production with the brightest circular tunes these supposed folk-borne musicians had ever cut.
And even with its instant 9.3 from Pitchfork, the album that caught me up with these guys was overshadowed by a significantly blander Panda Bear solo album that did everything “Peacebone” (“An obsession with the past is like a dead fly”) inveighed against. Person Pitch has its pretty, songful moments, especially the last third of “Good Girl/Carrots” and the first third of “Bros,” and probably does deserve its place in the timeline of innovative sampling, even if Noah Lennox was just helping popularize it for rock artists. But its own runaway popularity drew a line in the sand that’s haunted the band ever since. Person Pitch, and the most beloved Animal Collective records, endure for their earnestness, their sunniness, their evocatively produced vaguely feel-good “collectiveness,” that drum-circle experience that people tend to outgrow.
VIDEO: Panda Bear – “Person Pitch” (Full Album)
Their twisted-fucker side, mostly brought in by Avey Tare on Strawberry Jam and Centipede Hz, couldn’t compete with the increasingly sentient concept of “feels,” and Animal Collective’s tightest “songs” were never as revered as their impressionistic “vibes.” It’s bizarre to say this, but they were never really allowed to stop being a jam band.
Whereupon, Merriweather Post Pavilion dominated what could only be called the indie-rock news cycle from the sixth day of 2009 (unless you had an early leak, which you did), til year-end season, on the strength of three songs: “My Girls,” “Brother Sport,” and “Summertime Clothes.” Another gripe about this era’s narrative-based approach to critical saturation was that criticism of these grandfathered acts was simply absent. Maybe there are people today who would argue that “Watch the Tapes,” “Us vs. Them,” and “Sound of Silver” were all crucial inclusions on the best album of 2007. And maybe people really do believe “Bluish” or “Lion in a Coma” are capital-G Great Songs, or that there’s more to “In the Flowers” than its one moment of fireworks-display drums entering. Or people who can hum bars of “Guys Eyes.”
Though I don’t doubt they exist, I have never seen these arguments with my own eyes, and I’ve read a lot of adoration for Merriweather Post Pavilion. Virtually all of it hinges on a fantasy, an indie-rock takeover where the good guys win and the abstract weirdos mature into family men and the alt-rockers expand their horizons with dance music, and Jay-Z attends Grizzly Bear shows. Merriweather Post Pavilion wasn’t where indie-rock gentrified the rest of the world, but it may as well have been. Its absorption of house music was limited to exactly one song. Its rhythms were certainly pushed to the top of the mix for once, but not along after “Also Frightened” checks in at track three, they become negligible. Legible choruses and lyrics worth quoting are largely limited to the three singles as well.
VIDEO: Animal Collective – “Daily Routine” (Live at Union Transfer 2-19-16)
How are the other songs? I’m fond of “Daily Routine” myself, but depending on the day my interest in “Taste” or “No More Runnin’” or any of the others veers from decent to indifferent. There are only three songs on this supposed landmark album that I’ve seen anyone treat as great, and they’re not bad choices. But they’re fortified by an indie-wins narrative, not their surrounding tracks. Animal Collective was the Brooklyn moment’s flagship band because they did influence a lot of people and their timing was ripe for Pitchfork’s Wenner-esque treatment. But Merriweather Post Pavilion isn’t even their best album, despite virtually everything written about it insisting it’s the “one Animal Collective record everyone can agree on.” It’s a slight accessibility move in pop/dance clothing and a vibe album posing as a song album, by a singles band posing as an album band.
“Summertime Clothes,” especially, deserves a great album to go with it. More than “My Girls,” which spends much of its runtime telling more than showing how nerds are allowed to both grow up and dance, this one really is The Animal Collective Pop Song. The psychedelically-panned synth-frizz gives way to memories of the theme from Snoopy Come Home, which sated fans’ appetites for their allegedly non-nostalgic “timelessness” and their primitive futurism alike. And it fulfilled my requirement of Being a Damn Tune.
“Summertime Clothes” invokes the smell of August city garbage, hitching its wagon to the all-purpose sweet-nothing “I want to walk around with you” and the jig-paced follow-up “When the sun goes down we’ll go out again,” but for once, there’s so much in between.
Weaving through cardboard and strolling down a financial street with slippery feet, the song does what few others have attempted and viscerally hammers home just how sweaty city summers get. It’s got sights, scents, tastes, and not just in the lyrics. The raindrops playing percussion on the second verse and crashing-wave samples blend seamlessly with Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s harmonies into one true moment of jubilation that, I’ll agree, everyone can agree on. If only the other ten songs could stand as tall. Maybe now that their sales are in decline, they’ll take that best-of idea seriously? Come on, guys. You know in your hearts you’ve always wanted to make a great album.
VIDEO: Animal Collective – “Summertime Clothes”