Animal Collective — Merriweather Post Pavilion

I spent the weekend assuming that I’d begin this post by saying that there has never been an album worse-suited for vinyl release than Animal Collective’s seminal Merriweather Post Pavilion. In my memory, the record’s soundstage is claustrophobic and compressed, filled with clattering synths and clanging polyrhythms and distorted vocals that, it seemed, were written and recorded for the stream. That memory rang true to me as I paced the apartment during the LSU-Ole Miss game on Saturday afternoon. It turns out I was wrong. And right. Kind-of.

Merriweather Post Pavilion was officially released on the same day that Barack Obama was inaugurated into office. I’d had a couple of friends over a few weeks before to listen to my promo copy (emailed mp3s that I’d burnt onto CD-R), and one remarked that at this point in their career, Animal Collective’s chief influences were 311 and ringtones. All I remember about that first listen was my intense disappointment. I’d been a big fan of Feels and Strawberry Jam, and Panda Bear’s Person Pitch, because of those records’ willingness to paste experimental textures all over and across what are, at their base, fairly straightforward pop songs. All three of those albums have strange topographies, intricate and mobile collages that reward close scrutiny, and that imbue the singers’ lyrical fascinations with everyday domestic life with a kind of dignity–or, rather, they extract the noble complications inherent in those things, and hold them up as worthy subjects for high aesthetic pursuit (which classification I’d argue in favor of for Animal Collective). Merriweather’s overcrowding and lack of organic instruments made it feel, in comparison to its discographic siblings, dry and uninviting. And while I eventually found my way in to the record and learned to love it, I’ve never quite been taken captive by it the way I have by Feels, Strawberry Jam, and Person Pitch; like everyone else, I imagine, I mostly spin it for the two big bangers, “My Girls” and “Brother Sport.”

All of which made the notion of sitting down and listening to the entire record a bit tedious from the outset. It didn’t sound nearly as bad as I’d assumed it would, though: While the high end, of which there is plenty, is often muddled to the point that it sounds like Avey Tare is shaking a bag of shredded foil, the bass is crisp and somehow has more presence than it does in digital form. And while I still wish that the record had a more definite shape, it’s not nearly as monolithic as I’d remembered. A left-hand piano run and swish of voices gives “Guys Eyes” a swing I’d completely ignored in face of the song’s lack of a singable hook. (I have a feeling that this is going to be a running theme throughout these posts, my inability to like something with which I can’t sing along.) I still love the way that three or four separate basslines braid through one another in “In the Flowers,” a song whose reediness is actually enhanced by the overwhelming high end: It draws a sharper contrast with the explosion of bass that comes after the buildup, with richer rewards.

All things considered, I probably shouldn’t own this album. Merriweather’s pre-release hype was astronomical, bolstered in part by the leaked version of “Brother Sport,” and I remember being very anxious to have a vinyl copy of the album despite my initial ambivalence towards it. Vertigo in Grand Rapids (still one of the best record stores I’ve ever been to, if not the best) sold out of their initial run almost immediately, and by the time my copy arrived, I had to pay for it with the nauseating knowledge that what I really wanted to own was the moment, to be able to have a fragment of the history of hype on my shelf. It’s a variety of vanity that I’m particularly prone to, and which, as a critic, I need to be better at fighting. And while I stand by my initial review of Merriweather Post Pavilion, in which I praise Animal Collective for having the courage to write so eloquently and personally about the quotidian, I also admit that that’s never why I listen to these songs anymore, when I listen to them at all.

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