I dutifully picked up copies of the last couple Animal Collective LPs when they came out, despite not being particularly into the works that preceded them. I found Merriwether Post Pavilion too slick, and Centipede Hz sort of just generally irritating. But they're a band whose career arc I feel emotionally invested in, in sort of a strange way.
This is because the last record of theirs I loved was Feels, which was essentially a folk record. Folk music seems "mature," in some ways, musically. On the Drag City roster you can see any number of people who started off noisy and experimental and later moved into a more stripped-down and song-oriented direction. Bill Callahan would probably be the best example. It seems like something to age into, in your dotage, for a musician, as the idea of being abrasive no longer feels true to where you're at.
But for Animal Collective, that ended up being a detour. The path they were on was towards song, and the electronics of their early work got pushed into more rhythmic directions, and they found a good deal of success there.
So when I pick up a new Animal Collective record I am partly expecting a return to austerity, or something; a realization that the pop song is an adolescent form. But: They've found success with these songs. Every one of their records, since Here Comes The Indian, has brought them increasingly larger audiences, been a breakthrough that's brought them into playing larger venues. I realized only fairly recently that a lot of people got on board with the follow-up to Feels, Strawberry Jam.
Around the time of that record's release, some members of the band had children. I read an interview where one of them remarked that this meant they felt a deeper commitment to their art, that they could no longer phone it in.
I don't want to talk about these pop songs in terms of being a sell-out move. I think it makes sense as an arc. But it's interesting, also, the idea of artistic maturity not in terms of musical signifiers of austerity, but in terms of art being something you do to pay the bills, that you can make a career out of. And Animal Collective's audience, I think, is generally younger than they are- They cannot retreat to the NPR circuit, or academia, or anywhere where there's institutional support. They are young people in the shit, they actually have to sell records.
A funny thing about Animal Collective, though, is their attraction to the band the Sun City Girls. It's this attraction that led to getting Scott Colburn to produce Feels, following his involvement on so many Sun City Girls records. The Sun City Girls, famously, did not give a shit about the quality of their records, and put out a ton of crap. Feels, then, would be one of the best-sounding records Colburn ever produced, with not much in terms of competition, really, until the death of Charles Gocher precipitated the brothers Bishop actually attempting to make a beautiful Sun City Girls record, 2010's Funeral Mariachi.
The other thing, about Sung Tongs, and Feels, is that, although they are folk records, they're also nostalgic for childhood, for bits of beauty found there. The shift that happens afterwards is that the music is still sort of about childhood, but from a different perpective; experiencing it vicariously, through the eyes of your children, now that the band themselves are parents.
This is a path that makes sense, artistically, in another sense: Life is too long to be prematurely old, and nostalgia for childhood is, in some sense, an old man's emotion. The dudes in Animal Collective will probably not make another folk record in some time. Quite possibly, it'll have to wait 20-odd years, until their children are out of the house and taking care of themselves.
So this then leaves Feels and Sung Tongs in an odd spot of being charged with meaning, a path artistically unexplored, that they never made other records like those, records that a listener like myself, who heard them when they came out, can hear nostalgically, for the time period past that won't come again. I am sure there must be people now who are getting into those records, maybe finding them more meaningful and closer to their experience than the music Animal Collective is making now. Who knows where we'll all be the next time we're in the same place?