The band Animal Collective has been together for over twenty years, ever since founding members Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox, David “Avey Tare” Portner, Josh “Deakin” Dibb and Brian “Geologist” Weitz’s initial high-school forays into experimental noise. The group achieved some measure of mass appeal – as much as a psychedelic electronic-pop quartet can hope for, anyway – in the 2000s off the critical success of records such as Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009) and Strawberry Jam (2007). With each new release, Animal Collective has pushed the envelope of what constitutes “pop” with long episodes of sonic noise, repetitive vocal layering and lyrical ingenuity.
Painting With, a Feb. 19 release from the Domino Recording label, signals the end of a four-year hiatus following the release of Centipede Hz (2012). During the hiatus, Panda Bear collaborated with Daft Punk (“Doing It Right,” from 2013’s Random Access Memories) and Avey Tare productively channeled his eccentricity into a personal side project, Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks.
In Painting With, Animal Collective returns with a newfound energy. The album manages to evoke the same penetrating psychedelia of earlier records while eliminating much of the band’s archetypal instrumental interludes, minutes-long intros and reverb-laden vocals. The result is a mostly fresh, if fatiguing, assault of springy exuberance.
Album-opener and lead single “FloriDada” wastes no time setting a mood, allowing 19 seconds of analog buildup before Panda Bear delivers a rapid-fire set of lyrical chunks in four-line stanzas: “I wanna discover the key / And open the everywhere place / A mix of sky from Montana / Dipped in FloriDada.” The underbelly of the song incorporates a wild amalgam of bongo drums, buzzy spring noises and staccato vocal blips. To strengthen the effect, the music video for “Floridada” is a seizure-inducing sequence of pink and orange humanoid figures swimming in geometric holograms. Though explicitly a defense of Florida from undue criticism, the title is also a nod at the Dada cultural movement, which rejected 19th-century aesthetic conventions.
Here, Animal Collective pushes against the shadowy reverb – pioneered by Animal Collective themselves – that now soaks the work of mainstream artists like The Weeknd. It is, as Panda Bear described to Vice I.D., Animal Collective’s “Ramones record.”
Though this record pares down the warped effects and post-production trickery, there is still plenty to hold the listener’s interest. Panda Bear and Avey Tare’s vocals are front and center, usually following each other with delays of about a fraction of a second in a trippy call-and-response cadence. Otherwise, the melodies are often simple, almost cute. For example, “Golden Gals,” a fairly straightforward love song that highlights the gender roles promoted by traditional pop culture, is complete with a sample lifted from the show Golden Girls. “Vertical” paints a picture of the alternating wonder and horror experienced by living under city lights and skyscrapers.
Some of the most interesting moments in Painting With come from contributions from outside artists. On “Lying In The Grass” experimental saxophonist Colin Stetson, known for working with such artists as Justin Vernon and Arcade Fire, drops several dark saxophone trills as Panda Bear slightly dampens the energy in a slower exploration of why we lie. John Cale, a founding member of The Velvet Underground, also lends a helping hand in the otherwise ho-hum track “Hocus Pocus.”
A reigning motif across Painting With is an interest in universal, often primitive human experience. There are references to cavemen paintings, war and dinosaurs. “We’d sit around this little fire thing outside and talk about how the music and the sounds were reminding us of something very prehistoric, like a rough painting with paint splattering everywhere,” Tare said to Pitchfork. Animal Collective’s tenth album is not their most boundary-pushing work, but neither is it background music; it sits comfortably between entertaining us without boring us.
Painting With forges a lyrical and honest relationship with the viewer, condensing long meditations into crunchy three-minute chunks. And if we get tired of the incessant vocal delay, clanging, synthy burps and spastic percussion, we can always retreat to the safety of Merriweather Post Pavilion. Animal Collective continues to produce fascinating musical soundscapes on their own terms, challenging us.