Animal Collective doesn’t sound like a rock band. It sounds like a couple of shamans have sat down around a fire every once in a while with an acoustic guitar, a floor tom, and a delay pedal to effuse sixty captivating, otherworldly minutes of sound onto a patient, waiting line of tape. It’s a band that sounds as if it presented its new records on the eighth full moon of each year, wrapped in banana leaves and Albanian newspapers, and delivered by a flock of purple and yellow hummingbirds. Animal Collective sounds unencumbered by physics, and gravity, and earthly flesh, happily traversing its own cosmic alternate reality and leaving us with glittery musical footprints.
But Animal Collective is no such band, even it sounds so ethereal. For all the freewheeling campfire bohemianism and messy mysticism that its music evokes, the band has always consisted of a deceptively careful and self-aware group of craftsmen. The most thrilling moments in 2004’s Sung Tongs LP—a record steeped in giggly mysticism and a beads-and-feathers whimsy—have always been the sounds of fingers squeaking on steel strings, of edits that are slightly off, of human voices that crack and whine slightly when pushed into some cosmic higher register. As awe-inspiring and uniquely spiritual as the music has always been, it is not without an artifice; a deliberate hand edits and shapes all of the whoops and squirts they strike on tape—crafts each crudely scrawled cover illustration.
And so arrives Strawberry Jam, a record that encapsulates the best experimental ideals of Animal Collective while straying farthest from its roots in the avant-garde. It is the loosest and freest work the group has put out in its submission to pop melodies and structure, the most spontaneous and natural as the most produced and “written,” the most deeply personal and original in shedding pretensions and laying bare the Animals’ collective soul in the deep nether-sphere of pop music. The secret immaturity and wavering puberty of the group’s earlier work has crystallized here into something wonderfully confident—a hearty, assured sound that accesses the band’s bizarre pleasure points with a new edge that makes the music into something at once wholly new and classically Animal Collective.
Effortlessly humble, Strawberry Jam is, foremost, Animal Collective’s most transparent work, yet oozing the kind of breezy self-confidence that would elect an unabashedly literal close-up of a smooshed strawberry as cover art. It’s a small record, one that can be folded up neatly and stored in a breast pocket with its trim, nine carefully efficient freakouts. But at the same time, it overflows and overloads with the sort of primal, visceral energy off of which the group’s earlier records merely launched their rabid restlessness and free-spirit sensibilities.
The first few bars of album opener “Peacebone” crashes into existence in a tangle of pounding electronic beats, which twist and bend manically before the song’s overarching gallop rises to a crescendo. “Peacebone” is roped sturdily by a newfound appreciation for Avey Tare’s vocals, which flit and stretch, high and intelligible, above the instrumentals for the first time. Animal Collective has a spastic string bean of a vocalist in Tare, whose role in the Collective’s earlier records was mostly limited to cooing and purring, weaving and floating in between acoustic guitar and tribal percussion in the most earnest, wide-eyed imitation of an enchanted forest. Here, Avey Tare’s voice—hopscotching between grinning carny squeal and feral shriek—joins a chorus of distorted roars and howls over a whirling halogen sideshow of driving toms, deep synth lasers, and steel drum. Somewhere between “Peacebone,” the lightsaber-sampling “Unsolved Mysteries,” and the ecstatic heave and sway of “Chores”, the group emerges from the drone-y haze of its previous records into the loping enchanted forest.
Fourth track “For Reverend Green” finds Avey Tare at his most vulnerable: a shy boy with a guitar dousing his pleading love and optimism in huge noise and tribal percussion. “I think it’s all right / We’re together now / I think that’s all right / Now I think it’s the best / You ever played me now / I think that’s all right,” Tare sings over a crashing tide of warped, stadium-sized noise that sounds like Keith Moon reassembled out of twigs and tinsel. This character is quintessentially Animal Collective, striking both at the band’s origins in paste-eating, free-associating joy-fuckery and at the group’s adolescent self-doubt. It is a character that bursts gloriously out of every note on this record, simultaneously fresh and familiar, as if he had lain suspended in chrysalis through all of Animal Collective’s previous records.
The whole record falls apart and reconstructs itself in the six-plus minutes of “Fireworks,” a song that slyly slides under the door so much more than its shiny exterior promises in its bouncing glitter and pulse. One listens to “Fireworks” as if one has never heard music before, as if the song’s sound of yearning and remorse must be constructed, note by note, bar by bar, from some deep puddle of pop music afterbirth. In an album without a droning Animal Collective centerpiece, “Fireworks” is Strawberry Jam’s fulcrum; the song illuminates the record’s darker second half, sending up a flare that never quite peaks but never starts to fall, either.
That darkness cements Strawberry Jam’s status as a monument in Animal Collective’s discography by making tangible and vital what, we can now see, had remained latent in the band’s earlier music. The darkness of Animal Collective’s earliest recordings assumed the form of something oily and ill-defined; it was the sound of pressing your ear against a moss-covered wall and hearing the muffled crunching of insect legs with the warped screams of the trapped souls on the other side. It has always been this muted terror brewing in Animal Collective’s waves of electronic noise and textured vocals that has engaged and empowered its cosmic nursery rhymes and bug-eyed beat freakishness, elevating its music above that of less sophisticated peers.
In Strawberry Jam’s second half, the bugs break loose, and the screams are enfranchised and given lurching, fleshly bodies. Demons abound, concretized in the low, rumbling, pitch-distorted voices that introduce “For Reverend Green” and lurk in the shadows of “#1.” There are devils in the tinny, creaking guitar loop that opens “Cuckoo Cuckoo,” a song that bulges and groans with the weight of some looming, boisterous disaster. Anchored by a quiet, swirling piano loop you might hear wafting out of a dust-eaten turntable in purgatory, the song channels the schizophrenia of Sung Tongs into a stratospheric war of bucking and wobbling astral armies. “Derek,” the record’s closing track, confesses and redeems all the mess with its burbling music box, which opens and unfolds into a glorious, vaporous parade of lights, colors, and crowds that washes in suddenly and is carried back out to sea before all but the most pleasant impression of what has just occurred can sink in.
Strawberry Jam achieves the firmest grip yet on the sort of incomprehensible, extraterrestrial awe toward which the band’s music has always grasped. How do you write a song like “Cuckoo Cuckoo”? How does a human mind produce something like the melody of “Derek”? There is no discernible process for this stuff, no seams out of which something like a pop-musical chassis can be laid bare. These are boys who once played Peewee hockey, who had mothers that slicked their hair for school portraits, who ate hot dogs at ball games! Twenty-something Americans made this music! Behold Maryland boys, who wear beards and baseball caps, who go out for a beer after the show, who pay taxes.
Animal Collective is celestial and alien—not as preachers or prophets or angels are celestial and alien—but as Buddy Holly and the Platters and Björk are. They are the sinningest of the sinners, the ones who’ve found their god but only tease us with brief flashes of their discovery. If their earliest records evoked a solemnly magical liturgy of tribal animism, Strawberry Jam offers one of clapping, swaying, deep-bellied Gospel—of the possibilities of salvation through joyous, raucous devil-music. Animal Collective is a group of human beings after all, with all their terrific nonsense finally matured and confident enough for their biggest, boldest messages not to be lost in translation.