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Breaking the cycle of disappointment: Animal Collective’s “Time Skiffs”

<h6>“Animal Collective @ The Concord, Chicago 2-27-2016 (24991226889).jpg” by Mary Beeze (swimfinfan) / <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/swimfinfan/24991226889/" target="_self">CC BY-SA 2.0</a></h6>
“Animal Collective @ The Concord, Chicago 2-27-2016 (24991226889).jpg” by Mary Beeze (swimfinfan) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Disappointment is what I and many other Animal Collective fans expected leading up to the release of their latest (and first in six years) studio album “Time Skiffs.” While the gradual release of four different singles, all of which appear on the finished album, offset that expectation of disappointment, I could not help but feel like I had been baited into believing the final product would be a masterpiece.

For the uninitiated, Animal Collective formed 2003 as an experimental psychedelic pop band often compared to the later years of The Beach Boys. The band includes lead singers Avey Tare and Noah Lennox (referred to as Panda Bear), Brian Weitz (known as Geologist) on record production, and Joshua Dibb (known as Deakin) who mainly plays the keyboard for this album.

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After Animal Collective’s golden era from 2004 to 2009, which saw critically acclaimed releases such as “Merriweather Post Pavilion” and “Strawberry Jam,“ fans were met with the underwhelming and cluttered “Centipede Hz” in 2012 and “Painting With” in 2016. Now, six years later, we are met with another cluttered, yet refreshing, reboot to their experimental sound.

The album kicks off with the ironically dainty “Dragon Slayer.” Peachy vocals fill the ears, accompanied by a relaxing and trippy background theme. Ending the song is a powerful refrain which yells “let them bleed,” almost foreshadowing the stark change of sound which makes my ears bleed in the next song, “Car Keys.”

Maybe it’s due to the strange metallic scratching sound in the beginning of “Car Keys,” but it feels as though the first song sets an expectation for the album only to immediately take a completely different direction — for better or for worse. The song asks us “How are we doin’ now?” as if asking the fans who waited years for half-decent material.

If there is a highlight of the album, it is the third track, “Prester John.” It opens with a vibe similar to Radiohead’s “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors,” juxtaposed with a calming and uplifting keyboard. This creates a spooky theme that carries on for about two minutes into the song before it turns into an anthem of nostalgia and perhaps disappointment, all to a happy tune reminding you that even blue moments can feel warm. In fact, I feel weirdly happy with the vibrant colors this track displays while singing “Prester John is breaking down” and even his “heart is breaking down.” My only gripe is that the song could be a minute and 20 seconds shorter if they removed their attempt at being a quirky experimental band — if they removed the strange instrumental breakdown with unsettling robotic voices at the song’s end.

“Strung with Everything” continues this strange excess. It is a minute and a half of meaningless instrumental, empty of feeling, then followed by one of the most catchy and lively tunes in the entire album. “The sun’s no better off lately” blasts through the chorus, one of the few memorable lyrics from the album. The ending of the song uses the classic concept of pausing, uttering a lyric, blasting instruments, then repeating, but in a way that justifies their rage against the cruel world established in their lyrics.

Following such an emotionally charged song is the painfully ordinary “Walker,” which carries a lackadaisical xylophone in the background. At least one positive thing I noted is that I can understand all of the words spoken in the song. Much like the other songs, the end of the song cuts off all major instrumentation and has a mental breakdown… but in a cool, quirky, experimental way.

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As a possible homage to their 2003 album “Here Comes the Indian” (rightfully renamed as “Ark”), “Cherokee” can be summed up with the faux-deep lyric “people on the subway think so far and be so near.” Considering the almost eight minute length, the bridge which is repeated twenty five times, and the minute-long experimental breakdown which has gotten old by this point in the album, the song is quite forgettable.

Continuing with the “people on the subway” type of mediocrity, “Passer-by” details exactly what the title implies: interactions with a passerby on the street, though it feels more like the cliché “a stranger changed my life” college essay than anything else. More notable is the beginning of the subsequent “We Go Back,” which has such a rhythmic and strong backing bell-like beat, until turning the tides two minutes in and — thankfully — doing their last empty-sounding esoteric breakdown.

The final track on the album, “Royal and Desire” starts with an airy, floaty synth fronted by clear yet faraway vocals. It builds until about halfway through the song, never climaxing, but instead releasing into another stretch of lullaby-esque singing. Strings serenade the soul out of the final 30 seconds of the song. It truly encapsulates what an ending track should sound like.

Despite my negative feedback on numerous tracks of the album, I’d say the overall listening experience was immensely more enjoyable than their past two releases. Animal Collective has never made an album which is absolutely enjoyable all the way through. Rather, their best albums are collections of great moments mixed with whatever experimental sounds the band feels like recording. While it will never measure up to 2009’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion” in any way, Animal Collective went on autopilot for “Time Skiffs” in the best way possible. Its refreshing departure has quenched the drought of talent that plagued Animal Collective for the last decade, giving fans hope for whatever the band’s future holds.

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Nathan Beck is a Contributing Writer for The Prospect at the 'Prince.' He can be reached at nathanbeck@princeton.edu, or on Instagram at @n0tnate.

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