Animal Collective – Centipede Hz
Animal Collective have always been a group marching to the beat of their own abrasive pedal-warped drum, and their creative idiosyncrasies have carried them along on a steady upward trajectory, both creatively and in terms of commerical success. Merriweather Post Pavilion was in many ways the apex of their career to date — though their brand of naïf sonic experimentation had been incrementally garnering them fans and kudos in their decade of releasing albums up to that point, the 2009 opus found the group at their most consistently excellent and even won them a surprising degree of crossover success, making them arguably one of the most influential leftfield acts of the past decade.
So with that in mind, their follow-up proper was always going to be a tricky proposition. Sadly, Centipede Hz for the most part falls flat: it’s certainly their weakest in years, and ends the winning streak set in motion by 2004’s Sung Tongs. This failure partly stems from the inner contradictions of Animal Collective’s creative success, for they have always been a self-indulgent band, even at their very best. In terms of methodology, Animal Collective represent the naivety of the punk DIY aesthetic properly carried forward to the present day, as non-musicians intuitively experimenting with the possibilities of sound, with eyes focused firmly on the future rather than the past. They indulgently follow their creative whims, and at best, it leads to their stumbling into moments of skewed pop genius that dazzle with their unlikeliness. It’s this same trait that makes even their best albums terribly inconsistent, but that’s also what makes the band so exciting. When you hear a ‘Leaf House’ or a ‘For Reverend Green’, or a ‘Brother Sport’ you know this this is the top tier stuff, and it boggles the mind that anyone even wrote it in the first place. It excuses their often meandering detours into unsatisfying, woolly-headed quirkiness.
Yet on Centipede Hz, they’ve followed their artistic vagaries up a stylistic alleyway that accentuates their worst traits, without offering any of those sublime standout moments to make up for it. The first thing that becomes apparent on initial listen is the suffocating clutter, and overabundance of texture. It’s an album bursting to the seams with detail, but the overall effect is of too many separate colours all flung together onto a canvas. Instead of audacious maximalist genius, you end up with an indistinguishable murky brown mess. It’s the first album they’ve recorded live together in years, and it does feel garage band-y, only there’s so little self-editing here that every song feels like three separate ones played on top of each other, with results that are queasy rather than satisfyingly abrasive.
Repeat listening fails to redeem matters much. Once untangled from its over-satured mess of a whole everything feels rather uninspired, and any time an individual thread of a hook begins to excite, it’s quickly drowned out in more effects, and more gratuitous detail. Vocally things are just as lacklustre, and there’s precious little of that exquisite melody that garnered the band so many Beach Boys comparisons. It’s as if suddenly, the band seem to feel unsure of themselves, that imperceptible magic somehow lost.
That said, some highlights do eventually make themselves heard — initially disappointing single ‘Today’s Supernatural’ quickly proves to be an album highlight, with the closest thing to one of the life-affirming hooks you’d expect on here. Likewise, the relatively subdued melancholia of ‘New Town Burnout’ is a refreshing change of pace, and the sing-song melody of ‘Monkey Riches’ proves unavoidably catchy. Yet despite these brief moments, nothing matches up to past glories, and time spent listening to the album feels like the equivalent of a musical Rorschach test; striving to find meaning and sense in what is ultimately just a meaningless splotch of grotesque ink. It’s a disappointing misstep from the group, but hopefully Animal Collective’s future expeditions to their own navels will bring back some of that old genius. It’s too soon to write them off. James Ubaghs