Shh! Do you wanna hear a secret? I know one…
Animal Collective have always been a band founded on “secrets”. Their lyrics are wrought with hidden meanings and deeply political implications. Discerning the vocals can often be an act of scavenging in itself, disguised by layers of distortion and psych-infused melodies. But what started out as a lo-fi freak folk duo slowly grew into a pop-centric band of four, nearly devoid of the noisiness and challenge. Strawberry Jam marked the beginning of the full-fledged electronica approach to creating pop music, and Merriweather Post Pavillion brought the band into the scope of the masses, which wasn’t sustained with the release of Centipede Hz. But more than popularity, each Animal Collective release has been an individualized take on musicality and thematic concepts, and Painting With is no exception.
With Painting With, Animal Collective set a few goals and self-imposed setbacks for themselves. For one, songs weren’t allowed to hover around the six-minute mark, a comfortable length that Avey Tare and Panda Bear have described as the product of zoning out and being lost in their sound. Geologist refused to sample insects or planetary rotations, an eclectic staple in past production. The band’s sound has always found consistency in its inconsistencies, and on Painting With it took the form of short, straightforward pop songs. High on hocketing and furthered by a sense of social awareness, Animal Collective deliver their most simplistic yet sophisticated album to date.
Sonically, the album may be the group’s most restrained and uncomplicated. At its worst, the songs become a derivative of Animal Collective’s current sound. “Spilling Guts”, one of the album’s latter moments, offers no differentiation from anything shown before it, save for a disappointing robot voiceover that introduces the track. But despite the oversaturation of the back-and-forth patterns, Painting With offers more peaks and variation than its decade counterpart Centipede Hz did. “On Delay”, a cleverly childish pun, is a trapeze act between The Postal Service and a Miranda July film. “Natural Selection” feels like Animal Collective on speed while “FloriDada” captures the bouncy summertime vibrancy not felt so tangibly since Sung Tongs. Songs like “Lying in the Grass” have the same springiness that made “Lion In A Coma” so memorably vigorous with an insatiable momentum.
That momentum was somewhat lost on the insect-driven Centipede Hz but has been reinvigorated on this dinosaur-infused LP. The samples are much less cerebral than those on previous outputs. In fact, a lot of the vocal samples are more comical, especially compared to Alvin Row’s horrifying looping “My singing voice is gone!” The Golden Girls snippets and satirical news coverage of “Hocus Pocus” bookend the album in a soft glow of humor, lightly undercutting the discussions on tax collection, generational gaps, and sexism. Animal Collective have always been compared to children’s music, whether that was with their worldview or warped samples, but never before have their instrumentals felt so directly made for children.
The songs feel catered toward those with limited attention spans and are often topped with bubblegum choruses completely devoid of distortion, a pro for anyone dipping their toes into the proverbial pool of music that Animal Collective has filled, but a weighted con for anyone following their journey since inception. Sure, when listening to “Vertical” it’s hard not to sing along to “the parking lot is way too hot”. But the four-minute track feels so unnaturally cut short. This isn’t to say that it feels uninspired or without merit. It, like almost everything the band has done, accomplishes what it sets out to do, and does so unequivocally successfully. Animal Collective conquer their goals of creating an album that never lingers and always drives straight to the point. Unfortunately, this is the inherent detriment with Painting With: their goal is one of comparative vapidity.
– Zach W.