Animal Collective, ‘Centipede Hz’ — Album Review
Polychromatic monster puppet hauls ass on a dune buggy: That’s the takeaway image from the video for ‘Today’s Supernatural,’ the lead single from ‘Centipede Hz,’ Animal Collective’s ninth album. The song, the video, the album and its cover all show how very serious the band is about being very silly. As these trends suggest, ‘Centipede Hz’ is an awesome entry into their bountiful and bizarre canon.
The whimsical wackiness here is much more accessible (or, to put it another way, less alienating) than on some of their earlier avant-garde work. At the same time, the gorgeous textures that bespeckled the beloved ‘Merriweather Post Pavilllion’ are not present here; in fact, that directness — both in accessibility and musicality — appears to be a reaction to that ballyhooed 2009 release. David Portner said an interview that the band had grown weary of standing behind samplers while onstage; as such, it’s a greater focus on playing that comes through on ‘Centipede.’ The other thread in the directness game is the presence of producer Ben H. Allen III, who acted as a listener’s advocate for the band during their three months of recording in Baltimore, cautioning the guys that if the vocals were too muddled or the music too maniacal, they’d lose the audience.
The resulting music rollicks and raves. Opener ‘Moonjock’ is catchy and confounding, fusing hip-hop claptraps and Beach Boys harmonies, all awash in synth fuzz. The wall of sound relents for the shuffling, cartoonish ballad ‘Rosie Oh,’ then returns for the exorbitantly exuberant ‘Applesauce,’ a Technicolor ode to the joys of mangoes, cherries, honey — the snacking of yore, “the days when they were all sweet and delicious.”
This, then, is the other major theme: The band is growing up, and the lyrics here, especially in the latter half of the record, tend toward maturing and domesticity. The ebullient chorus on ‘Father Time’ — “A long, long time ago!” — reaches back into nostalgia for childhood, while the calling out of “take my coat off, take my shoes off” in ‘New Town Burnout’ is a nod to the pleasures of home.
What keeps ‘Centipede’ from being ideal is the lag in the last part of the listen, with tracks like ‘Monkey Riches’ and ‘Mercury Man’ giving the ear an acute case of Experimentation Fatigue, though the buoyant ‘Pulleys’ reverses that process. And, most thankfully, the closer ‘Amanita’ acts as capstone and thesis, a structure of rhythms and voices that feels light for all of its complexity. It ends with the hopeful wish, “I’m gonna come back and things will be different / I’m going to bring back some stories again.” It’s bubblegum enough to leave the listener enchanted.
Animal Collective are deeply committed to being new — as the avant-garde ought to be — and in ‘Centipede Hz,’ they’ve rediscovered something essential inside their sound, a focused frenzy that doesn’t become too intense. In doing so, they give us more reason to consider them for who they are — perhaps the most artistically significant American band of their generation.