Now, in a neatly eclectic musical pirouette, we spin from finger-pickin’ blues gospel into the electronic rhythms and screaming harmonics of Animal Collective. Long a fringe act with an alienating-at-first edge to their excellence, it was right around here that Animal Collective hit on the balanced formula that led to mass appeal and mega-success.
Though global notoriety wouldn’t come until the next album, you can already hear the maturation of their sound in Feels and StrawberryJam. Both albums are excellent and important, I really can’t recommend then enough, and this song in particular always felt to me like the polished culmination of something they’d been building towards for a long time.
As much as I love them though, I can’t help but add that Fireworks is a great example of how first-draft writing won’t kill a song — far from it — and what an unfortunate disincentive that can be. While there are a lot of good lines, really, a lot, there are at least an equal amount that are just… bad. Bad like bad poetry bad. Honestly, they could’ve titled the song pretty much anything and it would’ve remained fundamentally unchanged.
And really, that’s not the end of the world. I still love the work, I chose it for the bindle, and I’m sitting here listening and enjoying it all over again as I write about it. But it is wasted opportunity, and it’s not an isolated incident — if anything, it’s the rule. For so many songs, after the last note fades, the lingering, frustrating question remains: if it’s already this good…
Joshua “Deakin” Dibb, the notoriously expendable member of Animal Collective, left the band on a “hiatus” right before Merriweather Post Pavilion dropped and sent them into the global music stratosphere. As the three-man Animal Collective toured the globe and became internationally famous and wealthy, Deakin faded deeper and deeper into the mists of their history. Unfortunately (fortunately?) he was never truly forgotten, because the internet was still busy reviling him.
During this hiatus he put together a Kickstarter asking for $25,000 to go to Mali. I’ll say from just a travel expense perspective, that’s an outrageous amount of money to send one person to Africa. Ostensibly he was going to play a show with Gang Gang Dance, record an album, and produce some kind of visual poster/book to go along with it. Gang Gang Dance dropped out, but Animal Collective fans still, sort of shockingly, donated enough to meet the goal. So he took the money and went.
And then nothing. Nothing happened for years, no music, no nothing, and the internet was not impressed. His micro-fiscal backers left angry posts all over message boards, and a new breed of “crying Deakin” meme was born. It got bad.
During this time he would pop up periodically to reply to some of his most virulent critics, saying he was sorry, that he had actually given most of the money to an anti-slavery NGO in Mali, that he was trying to work on an album, that it just hadn’t happened.
Later he would talk in interviews about the crippling insecurity he struggled with, the weight of his doubts about what he had actually brought to Animal Collective, about his singing voice, about whether in the end he even had anything worth saying. So this year, when his solo album finally came out, it created a small sensation. And honestly? I hated most of it. The meat of this record is a painful, try-hard mess.
I’m moving into the realm of speculation and opinion here, so it’s important to back up and say first that I think Animal Collective was one of the most innovative, influential bands of this generation. So much art, even great art, is the rehashing of old ideas, the use of old tropes in new ways. It’s trope because it works, and there’s nothing wrong with that; this kind of art represents most of our cherished cultural heritage. But real genius, that sporadic flash of true human miracle, is innovation.
Animal Collective, at least up through Feels and Strawberry Jam, and to a lesser extent Merriweather Post Pavilion, were truly doing things that hadn’t been done before. It was fresh, and weird, and difficult, and exciting. That being said, it was always sort of understood that the driving creative forces there were Avey Tare and Panda Bear (Dave Porter and Noah Lennox). To echo poor Josh’s demons, it’s hard to tell what exactly Deakin was doing that was vital to this phenomenon. I mean shit, they kept sort of telling him nicely not to come anymore.
But Animal Collective of late, both with Deakin and without, has lost its fire. They’re still weird, but it’s more weird for weird’s sake, and it’s not new anymore. The heart has gone out of their music, for me at least, along with the heat — their new songs are missing something important; they feel hollow. As a band they’ve moved very far away from sitting on the floor singing “Covered in Frogs” to a room full of confused people. So it was with surprised delight that I discovered, despite Sleep Cycle‘s rancid meat middle, that Deakin opened and closed his late little offering with bookends of pure blue sky. It’s authentic early Animal Collective, and it’s bliss.
He may not have invented Panda Bear and Avey Tare’s irregular rhythmic and vocal methods, but he was there, and he helped, and he learned. Those years on tour and in the studio were not for nothing. Animal Collective after Merriweather Post Pavilion no longer sounds to me like the Animal Collective I fell in love with — but here, Deakin does. His songs are excellent, and real, and full of simple, vulnerable heart. Despite his public humiliation, his failures and paralyzing insecurity, he did have something to say, and he says it here softly to himself, and it’s all about redemption.
“You have your fits, I have my fits, but feeling is good.”
Animal Collective is a difficult band to talk about. Even in their heyday they were often unsettling, discordant, abrasive. They were also amazing musicians, but it took some time to parse that out. The path generally went what is this noise? Is he screaming? Then, ah, wait, there’s something happening here. Then oh shit, it’s something rocking.
Banshee Beat, for me, is them at the height of their powers. It’s not the best audio quality, that chick in the audience keeps screaming over the chorus, but still I always come back to this specific performance. The time of day, the way it comes together, the color of the sky, I don’t know. I don’t have a favorite song, but I do have songs that would be in the discussion. This. This makes me calm.