Animal Collective has succeeded in both making a mind-bending, wacky trip of a record.
Here’s the thing: Animal Collective’s Painting With is fucking bizarre. It’s the year’s wackiest record. Actually, let me rephrase. Seeing as it’s only February, Painting With is the wackiest record that’ll be released this year. Hands down. Bar none. Whatever other cliché that’s used to describe an absolute. Normally I wouldn’t be reduced to clichés and cursing, but give this record a spin yourself—watch your normally appropriate, lucid language degrade to F-words and catch phrases. Because here’s the other thing: Just to sprinkle some nuts on top of all this lunacy, Animal Collective’s Painting With is also pretty damn good.
Part children’s television show soundtrack, part heady expressional experimentation, part bubblegum pop, Painting With is challenging and accessible all at once. How Animal Collective manages to pull off such a feat is part of their charm. There’s something endearing about gaining an audience by melting their brains while also giving them something to dance to. It’s dastardly and kindhearted, and this quartet of altruistic ne’er-do-wells have done it for so long that Painting With—their 10th album—is another entry into a long and storied career filled with oddities and more oddities.
At first, the album’s lead single, “FloriDada,” has a vaguely island vibe with a beat that could fit nicely in a reggae tune. But it’s the layered vocals that make this track immediately morph from a head-bopping, light-hearted relaxer to a confounding mishmash of seemingly disconnected phrases that step over one another again and again. Now, while that may sound ridiculous, it is also catchy, light-hearted and fun, and also just too damn interesting to shut off. The chorus of “Flor-Flor-Flor-Flor Florida/ FloriDada/ FloriDada”—which, by the way, could have been inspired by an episode of “Barney & Friends”—is almost off-putting save for the feeling that it has drilled its way into your brain from its opening syllable. That’s just what these songs do. The other 11 tracks will affect you no differently. Once “FloriDada” ends, you’re already stuck.
“Hocus Pocus” takes the form of a sonic free verse poem—no rules other than the beat keeping everything from veering out of control. It’s nothing but a series of sounds that shouldn’t make sense together, but they somehow do and eventually transform into something not only listenable but enjoyable. Even when the vocals begin to sound like Keanu Reeves’ computerized scream during the red pill/blue pill scene in The Matrix, the tune still manages to coax listeners into continuing on.
Painting With’s second single, “Lying in the Grass,” is a bit darker than the earlier tracks. It’s a partial jazz composition with an electronic beat keeping time by thumping away in the background. Replete with vocals phasing from one speaker to another, a saxophone blaring a lone note every so often, and a chorus that is catchy in spite of itself, “Lying in the Grass” may be called a single, but it is very much one of the stranger tunes on the record.
The middle third of Painting With is made up of “The Burglars,” “Natural Selection,” “Bagels in Kiev” and “On Delay.” While they offer many of the same oddities heard earlier, they are by far the strongest songs on the album. The beats, the melodies, the cacophonous noise herein will convince those struggling to keep up to go far beyond an appreciation of this record—they’ll find that this thing is actually very, very good. It’s a happy medium between experimental head-games and simple enjoyable content. These songs will still confuse and frustrate, but they’ll also make that experience a challenge to listen closer in order to find the core melody.
Once Animal Collective has officially succeeded in making Painting With an album worth the scratch, they deliver “Summing the Wretch” and “Golden Gal.” These songs make the album’s challenges worth the effort by topping it with two proverbial cherries. By far the most fun and approachable tunes, these are what the band spends the album building up to. Despite the possibility of losing folks along the way, they seem less concerned with satisfying listeners as they are with rewarding them for their hard work. And that’s exactly what they do here.
At the end of the day, listening to experimental music is a challenge. It’s supposed to be. But bands who create the stuff also need to be aware that their listeners require a payoff to make that challenge worth the effort. On Painting With, Animal Collective has succeeded in both making a mind-bending, wacky trip of a record that matches their extensive body of work measure for measure, and at making an album well worth the work. And when a record burns the intelligent thought of people’s brains and leaves nothing but day-dreamy, wacked-out beats and melodies that is when experimentation and faith in an audience proves that a band like Animal Collective is doing great work.