Perfect Sound Forever


photo by Adriano Fegundes

Their signature closing tracks
by Carlos Guillermo
(June 2020)

Animal Collective has certainly encapsulated their general sound in its name. Although it was supposed to be just a "collective" brand (which would probably mean that their actual name has always been just 'Animal') under which a group of friends from Baltimore would release their musical collaborations, it's hard to deny that ever since their second album Danse Manatee (2001), they've been working as any other normal band would, consisting of four semi-rotating members, out of which only two of them have been the only consistent participants in almost each release.

It is plausible however that they didn't think their name through. But to say that their music evokes an animalistic quality isn't outlandish. Their world of melting soundscapes, wild percussion, repetitive hypnotizing patterns and use of screams and high vocal inflections (a characteristic even more prominent in their daring live performances) are very easy to associate with a hypothetical tribe ritual where dancers and singers imitate animals and get into a trance. This atmosphere is also helped by their penchant for sampling sounds from natural sources and some of their song titles like "We Tigers" or "Lion on a Coma," even though these kind of names could comprise less than half of their discography.

Their lyrics are not very easy to determine since the vocals are usually side-by-side with dense layers of sound or dipped in echo, making them sound sometimes seem like forest inhabitants singing in the distance. Even when their vocals are upfront in the mix, there's still a level of uncertainty about what they're actually singing about, a mystery they like to maintain by generally not releasing official lyrics. Having said this, their lyrics aren't much about the animal kingdom itself, with most of them feeling like very personal stories and observations about everyday life written with fascinating imagery.

They've used all these elements to craft songs in a variety of ways, with a real effort on changing the inventory of tools used on each project, going back and forth between songs jammed with all types of textures, to stripped-down acoustic performances, to eerie ambiances inspired by horror films, to harmonized pop melodies, etc.

However, there's one type of song, present in a number of releases, that I think exploits all their strengths to create a kind of euphoria, between child and adult states, mixing emotions of joy and melancholy in a frenzy with which they tend to close their albums. This type of song could even be considered as a summary of their overall style or as a musical mission statement, if there's one to be found.

I'd say that ending their albums on a euphoric high note is a tradition, but it just seems like a tendency that happens once in a while, in at least six releases from their discography.

The first example comes from their very first LP, Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished, made by two of their members and later retroactively put under the Animal Collective moniker (released at the time as an album by "Avey Tare & Panda Bear"). The closing track is "Alvin Row," a huge fan favorite. Even though it starts off like a disturbing lullaby that's collapsing in on itself from the get-go, with ear-drilling static, a dissonant piano and creepy vocals about a baby, it eventually makes a couple of transitions through different stages of semi-chaos to finally end on a upbeat last segment driven by an almost techno rhythm and piano alongside flaring synth lines, with explosive drum fills in-between bittersweet vocal melodies that elevate the song to a legendary moment in AC's catalogue.

There may be a reason why this is such a special song for fans. Apart from its latter half's catchy melodies and intricate drumming (some of the best in their whole discography), the lyrics, although very disjointed, seem to tell a story about having to grow up without necessarily wanting to, and the titular Alvin Row being some kind of imaginary friend or projection of the narrator's self-image. The words feel like pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, some bearably audible, some obscured out by electric noise. But what we do see of the complete picture may resonate with anyone that has gotten through their own rite of passage into adulthood.

This theme of remembering childhood or adolescence is also constant in almost all of these songs, as we'll see.

The second example chronologically is "Slippi," from their 2003 LP Here Comes the Indian. This is not precisely the last song in the album; it is the second to last, but it also ironically is without a doubt their first "signature" closing track. I say this because the style used in their first album Spirit, being one of their first ventures into releasing a long-play and composed almost entirely from lead singer and composer Avey Tare's collection of songs ranging back to his high school years, isn't the best representative of what the Animal Collective project would sound like. Here Comes in the Indian, on the other hand presents a style more easily associated with them, which arguably started really developing with the Danse Manatee and Hollinndagain (2002) albums.

With "Slippi," which comes as a total water splash to the face after the previous zombifying journey that is "Two Sails on a Sound," the band --now fully voltronized with all of its members participating-- showcases its ability to compose a joyous and chaotic tune that's sung and played with an almost childlike impetus. The lyrics also follow a theme of childhood remembrance: "I learned about dreaming in day school"; referencing another possible imaginary friend, or most likely a pet. "I had a little Slippi / and I held it as a baby" (note: some of the words cited may have been misheard). As the cherry on top, another signature AC moment happens in the outro. In the absence of lyrics or any kind of instrumentation save for percussion, the song fades away as the members sing and clap, presumably as celebrating Indians.

The next example is the very song that made me start to notice this pattern. Two years and one album after Here Comes the Indian, they released Feels (2005), a classic Animal Collective LP counting again with the participation of the four core members plus pianist Kria Brekkan and violinist Eyvind Kang. The bombastic closing track this time is "Turn into Something."

The ingredients are here as well, and may be the song that best showcases them. It starts off with a cheerful guitar lick establishing a sort of slightly detuned major key that gets quickly joined by a second guitar, drums banging a pattern reminiscent of calypso music and background wordless vocals melodizing in the background before the first verse starts. Though main vocalist Avey is clear as he howls along, the lyrics are still hard to make, but seem to reference teachers, moms and crawling "in the carpet like bugs." The chorus repeats variations of the phrase "Don't miss me goodness" and "Wish I could be here every time," which if let open to interpretation could be either about a mother having to leave her child in daycare or at home. Or it could be about a honeymooned lover leaving his partner's home, while the clear lyrics "but you'll turn into something" suggest a parental figure telling a kid that he'll become whatever he wishes to be someday, even something that they never even dreamed of.

Independently of the words being sung, Avey's voice reaches high notes in a narrow space between shouting and breaking into tears, evoking again a sort of adult bittersweetness and a child's rage. The last third of the song, however, seamlessly turns into a soft soundscape of pleasant abstract textures, a gorgeous cascading piano and vocalist/drummer Panda Bear's tenor voice echoing in the distance, as if singing a lullaby.

As a curious note, there's a fan music video for this song on YouTube that uses various clips of black-and-white cartoons, including a Betty Boop animation, that go unsurprisingly well with the music and enhances its both nostalgic and festive atmosphere.

The band displays this tendency yet again in their 2007 album Strawberry Jam, with the last track "Derek," which reminisces about once having a "white and black sheltie." Again the song is composed in a major key that gives it a sort of naive feeling and even makes it suitable for an educational TV show, helped by watery textured chords that bring to mind a backyard pool (and also follow the melody like a cheerful dog). The lyrics seem like a recollection of once having a pet and feeling that maybe the narrator didn't do enough for it. "Should've taken better care of him - but he had it okay" / "Should've been so much more willing - to help out with all the things that a dog like you needed" they sing, which I'm sure will make more than one pet owner teary-eyed (and if so, maybe they'll like their earlier acoustic song "Doggy"). The second half of this short closing track introduces a rhythm with a big kick drum to end on another high note, with the retrospective question "What did you see, when you saw inside of me?"

It is worth mentioning that, one track before this one, "Winter Wonder Land," also displays the band's capacity to make music that would feel at home in a kids show, if it weren't of course for some somber lyrics like "If you don't believe you're dying I won't tell you that you're dying." Despite not being a last nor second-to-last track, it is filled with merry melody lines that really make the title come to life in the listener's head, and would've been as perfect as "Derek" to end the album.

"Brothersport," from the critically acclaimed Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009). is undoubtedly one of Animal Collective's most famous songs and it is also another clear example of their knack for high-octane endings. It mainly consists of a tireless tropical rhythm marked by a shaker, a catchy vocal melody almost percussive in nature (which seems to again follow a sort of calypso pattern) and an intense middle section that feels never-ending every time you listen to it (heightened tenfold in live performances by Avey tirelessly screaming his lungs out). It is also a great example of how the band, particularly "Geologist" (who has the most responsibility in sampling), are able to masterfully manipulate sounds that end up feeling alien yet familiar, and using them to contribute to the song as any other musician would with a guitar or keyboard.

Our final example here comes from their 2012 album Centipede Hz with the closing track "Amanita." It is worth noting that excluding "Alvin Row," all these tracks have had the participation of all of the core members, which is quite impressive on its own, and in here the presence of main guitarist "Deakin" is felt throughout. The guitar announces the start of the song with an ominous tremolo-picked arpeggio coupled with a slow rhythm, which isn't the usual upbeat style we've noticed on most of all the other examples, saving it for the last part.

Again. the lyrics seem to be telling a story mostly through imagery in a manner that leaves many elements to interpretation, though it does explicitly tells of a sadness for the fading tradition of fantasies. Like the other songs, it displays nostalgia, especially with the last verses that point to a search for a long lost joy: "Go into the forest (...) I'm gonna bring back some stories and games."

The title most likely refers to the "Amanita muscaria", a type of mushroom that produces psychoactive effects. Even though the members haven't tried to be perceived as psychedelic drugs supporters, they also haven't shied away from mentioning that some of them have had drug related experiences. In the context of this song, the ‘Amanita' title is easy to link with the "go to the forest" line, with the use of an acid trip as a way to connect with those lost fantasies mentioned before. Or maybe it was just a nice name.

What the narrator seems to be looking for is to experience childlike wonder again, longing for it in a present where no one seems to care anymore about it. The song echoes this as its final section, much like "Alvin Row," turns fluently from a minor key slow tempo to a joyful dancing rhythm led by a fuzz-drenched guitar. As Avey finishes the last verses about losing himself in the woods, the vocals turn into wordless rhythmical melodies that go join the other instruments and sounds as spirits dancing in a noisy celebration.

As an honorable mention, "Jimmy Mack," off their 2017 EP The Painters, is yet another case in which they close the listening experience with an energetic track, although not following its predecessors thematically. The lyrics can't be really compared to the other ones due to it being a cover of Martha and the Vandellas, but at least a fan can joke that it is somehow related to an early bootleg song of theirs called "Jimmy Raven."

What can be gained from listening to all these closing tracks other than recognizing a pattern? Though this may be nothing more than a reflection on how Animal Collective tends to end their albums in the most idiosyncratic way they possibly can, the songs mentioned not only display some of their best attributes as a band but also what may be the core of what their music represents to a portion of the fan base.

The thing is that musically and lyrically, Animal Collective is able to create a certain atmosphere of introspection about what makes a child's vision of the world so interesting, while trying to deal with the good and bad of an adult life. "Alvin Row" serves as a kind of farewell, even a swan song to childhood to now enter into young adulthood ("My singing voice is gone!"), and lends the way for all the other songs to reminisce in a more optimistic, though sometimes melancholic, way.

A possible reason for how the band reaches this mood and stays in there, in a sort of familiar yet atypical way of looking at things, is the fact that they're for the most part totally disengaged from any kind of sociopolitical, spiritual or aesthetic worldview. Even though that may not sound unusual at all, the fact that they're recognized for their experimental and psychedelic quality while not having any explicit connection with this or that art movement can give the impression of what being a child appreciating art feels like. If anything, they'd be linked with Dada, as a song from their latest album Painting with suggests.

Music and visuals can be more interesting to a kid for all of its weird, varied shapes and colors, and for all of that which they don't know about the world, filling in blanks with their own imagination. This is in contrast with an adult who focuses on tuning, tempo, color palette, music scene, political/spiritual/philosophical message, etc.. And that may be what lies behind the desire to recover or replicate those blurry memories and feelings of being younger in spirit. That's something Animal Collective's music can help with.

Also see our interview with Panda Bear from 2009

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER