I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to be sitting here wondering how I should even refer to the new Animal Collective album in polite conversation, much less trying to dissect its contents. iTunes says it’s called Painting With, which, without the band’s name to follow it, positions the word “With” as a noun, which is just sort of wrong in every conceivable lingustic context. So it’s either Painting With Animal Collective, or Painting With…, or just Painting With I guess, because who cares, right?
Anyway, one fact related to Animal Collective that is not up for discussion is that “Grass” is the best Animal Collective song (because “My Girls” is fine, but you guys are kidding yourselves). This is relevant because Painting With feels like Animal Collective fed “Grass” through their recent set of buzzy electronic whizbangs and doodads twelve different ways and came up with an album.
In theory this should be fine, and maybe even kind of brilliant given that the Animal Collective of the 2010s wields electronic farts and buzzes just as effortlessly and skillfully as the Animal Collective of the aughts wielded guitars and echoes and campfires, but something is lost in the directness of it all. Part of the brilliance of “Grass” is its very presence on Feels, a beautiful, loud, poppy anomaly on an abstract bordering-on-ambient album. This time, Panda Bear and Avey Tare make sure their vocals are sitting right at the front of the mix for the entirety of Painting With Animal Collective, and while it’s fun and exhilarating for a while, there’s limited appeal in getting yelled at for twelve tracks.
That said, Painting With… is most successful when it really embraces the boulder and starts rolling downhill. “The Burglars” actually starts comparatively quietly, as the Avey and Panda show offers quietly- (if quickly-) delivered harmonies. It doesn’t take long for the buzzes to start getting louder, though, and before the song is even a minute and a half old, the drum pattern gets all Aphex Twinnish, Avey and Panda start yelling faster and louder, and the clatter is almost too much to bear. “What you think you own, you don’t, watch out, the burglars,” they sing at the end, and it doesn’t matter that it seems like a weirdly simplistic summary to such a push of chaos because you’re so busy trying to catch your breath.
Of course, you can’t catch your breath, because the very next song actually attempts to ratchet up the chaos even more with rapid-fire alternation of Avey and Panda’s voices. This is a very Animal Collective move, but on top of more complex breakneck beats, it’s almost too much to bear. Two tracks after that, the Tare and the Bear pull the exact same trick, except this time with a backdrop that’s a little more like a sledgehammer than a machinegun.
This frenetic midsection is bookended by track after track of quirky electropop, Autechre mashed with the Beach Boys, or Information Society mashed with the Monkees in its quieter moments, all of it with words that veer from the weirdly straightforward to the weirdly opaque, with a few bad puns and dad jokes mixed in (hello, “FloriDada”). Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan show up in sampled form (in the otherwise straightforward “Golden Gal”, of course), as does The Surfaris’ “Wipeout” in the aforementioned “FloriDada”, mostly because they felt like it, I guess.
All twelve tracks of “Painting With Animal Collective” fly by, with no one song exceeding five minutes, and quite a few under three. It’s a collection of thoughts as much as it is a gallery of songs, a testament to short attention spans whose noisier bits ironically require no small amount of patience.
Trying to understand the whims of Animal Collective is something of a fool’s errand, as this is a band that has historically taken some pride in keeping their personalities at arm’s length, even way back when their campfire doodles projected a strange sort of warmth. Each Animal Collective album has its own distinct personality, though, and even as the band has been doing the electronic psych-pop thing for a while, Painting With continues this trend. There is no album like it in the Animal Collective catalog; indeed, to its benefit, there may be no other album like it, period.
Uniqueness does not necessarily make for listenability, however, and Painting With… requires a certain mood. It’s a dip into Lake Erie in December: refreshing, maybe, but if you’re not ready for it, you’re bound to regret jumping in.