From its title, to its lyrics – which variously advise listeners to treat “every day as an image of a moment that’s passed”, “put the baggage down” and count one’s blessings compared to those who “find their way in a hearse” – to the warped version of Big Ben’s chimes that open a track called We Go Back, Animal Collective’s 11th album is a record that feels obsessed with the passing of time.
And why wouldn’t it be? The US quartet have been together nearly 20 years. It’s 13 years since their commercial and artistic peak, 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, on which a band who had always wobbled unsteadily along the line that separates the impressively exploratory from the hopelessly self-indulgent hit a graceful stride. It’s an album that now feels redolent of a different age, worthy of nostalgic retrospective pieces on American music websites, hymning the “the pre-algorithm era of tastemaking guided by the prominence of MP3 blogs”: an era in which Animal Collective looked like they might cross over to mainstream acceptance. Certainly, the nature of its success suggested it was attracting attention far beyond its usual constituency: Beyoncé reworked a line from its standout single My Girls on her universally lauded album Lemonade.
While some of their peers grasped the opportunity (Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, whose similarly psychedelically inclined debut InnerSpeaker appeared in Merriweather Post Pavilion’s wake, has become a regular pop world fixture, collaborating with Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Mark Ronson) Animal Collective appeared to let the momentum dissipate. They worked on two films: the absolutely dreadful would-be arthouse flick ODDSAC and the rather pretty Tangerine Reef, which set their music to footage of marine life. The band’s members released eight solo albums between them. The follow-ups to Merriweather Post Pavilion, the cluttered Centipede Hz and 2016’s frantic and abrasive Painting With were more coolly received: Beyoncé has not, as yet, lifted anything from them.
But then, Animal Collective always were adherents of the Grateful Dead – they sampled 1974’s Unbroken Chain on an EP released just after Merriweather Post Pavilion’s success; band member Dave “Avey Tare” Portner contributed vocals to Dead percussionist Mickey Hart’s 2017 solo album – and they seem to have decided Garcia and co’s way of doing things suited them too: operating at a slight remove from whatever else is happening in the music business, buoyed by a fanbase big on the FLAC file equivalent of live tape trading.
For better or for worse, the sense of a band preaching to the choir permeates Time Skiffs. With its lyrical references to matters temporal (“why are we in such a rush?” wonders Car Keys; “I cut my pace, no more racing urges,” offers Strung With Everything, “how many days do we have?”; while on Prester John, even the sight of a dried-up leaf leads the narrator to consider it had “a good long run, with a world of good intentions by it”) it often feels like it’s addressing itself to an audience who have been with Animal Collective for many years: noughties hipsters now staring down the barrel of middle age and grappling with the realisation that one’s time on Earth isn’t as limitless as it once seemed. Even Walker, a eulogy for the late Scott Walker stirs Animal Collective’s own mortality into the mix: “Appreciate you cannot wait … we’ll see you out there”.
Musically, there are lovely tunes – particularly the lazily gliding closer Royal and Desire – but there’s little of the head-turning WTF factor that marked out Merriweather Post Pavillion, or its predecessor Strawberry Jam, and nothing resembling a breakout hit along the lines of My Girls. There’s still a lot of cavernous echo applied to everything, but the sound feels relatively stripped back – the heady, enveloping psychedelic swirl of those albums is absent. On the plus side, so is Painting With’s spectacularly irritating trademark vocal style, in which Portner and Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox duetted by singing not alternating words, but alternating syllables of each word. In fact, the sonic mood often feels less psychedelic than strangely New Age-y, sounds associated with a genre that appealed to hippies who had outgrown the lysergic mayhem of their youth floating over Lennox’s rolling drum patters: keyboard riffs that twinkle like light on water; noises that recall gamelan instruments or things made of bamboo being struck with beaters, or – on the intro to Cherokee – some kind of hammered dulcimer; the minute of ambient synth, flickers of pedal steel guitar and what sounds like clanking wind chimes that opens Strung With Everything.
Time Skiffs isn’t a straightforward album by most artists’ standards: that its patchworks of sound, lengthy instrumental interludes and slowly uncoiling song structures represent Animal Collective dialling things down says more about their past oeuvre than anything else. As it is, it feels like an act of quiet consolidation rather than a breakthrough, aimed squarely at existing fans, unbothered by grabbing anyone else’s attention. “How are we doing now?” asks Car Keys, over and over again, as if checking in on an old friend, a line that sums up both Time Skiffs’ limitations and its charm.
This week Alexis listened to
Arlo Parks – Softly
Softly isn’t a huge leap forward from Parks’ debut album, but it’s lovely nonetheless: a breakup song that’s oddly buoyant and uplifting.