Time Skiffs review: Animal Collective head back to the future
Animal Collective have rarely been associated with accessibility. That is perhaps a strange thing to say about a group that, for a time, were one of the most influential indie-rock crews of the 2000s. But the far-flung quartet have always marched to the beat of their own delightfully weird drum. Even at the height of their popularity, Animal Collective trafficked in bursts of noise, amorphous soundscapes, and abrasive vocal acrobatics that kept listeners at arms' reach even as the band continued to draw in new converts.
Similar to '90s noise-rock scions Sonic Youth, AnCo's level of mainstream visibility has been as shocking as it has been seemingly unreplicable; it's hard to imagine a group that sounds so far out charting a similar ascendancy in today's musical landscape. And since the gooey glories of 2009's bass-heavy landmark Merriweather Post Pavilion, AnCo have only journeyed further into their collective headspace: 2012's Centipede Hz turned their giddy eccentricities up to 11, while Painting With, from 2016, refracted the sounds of early rock & roll into brittle, alien shapes. So the lush grooves of Time Skiffs — the first proper album from them in six years — is a welcome surprise for die-hard fans and casual observers alike. These nine songs are the most inviting Animal Collective have sounded in more than a decade.
After a series of increasingly strident, left-field releases, Time Skiffs marks the first AnCo-related album since percussionist Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox's opus Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper that could draw new fans to their wild-eyed tent. But it's also a project that closely recalls the group's spikier, more challenging work: The twinkling keyboards and cavernous reverb are unmistakable callbacks to the ecstatic reveries of 2000's Spirit They've Gone, Spirit They've Vanished.
While that record was static-sounding and kinetic in its unpredictability, Skiffs takes a decidedly more placid approach, with lazy-river synth squiggles and gangland vocals as smooth as melted butter. The Beach Boys are an unmistakable influence here, from the sunburst harmonies of "Strung With Everything" to the dusky twinkle of "Cherokee," while the swampy atmospherics and Lennox's splashy drums also evoke the swampy rock music of 2005's Feels.
But Animal Collective's 2000s output was also marked by a nervy angst that ran through their music like an electrical current. Time Skiffs, by comparison, is the sound of pure bonhomie between its creators — which makes sense, since it also marks their first full-band work since Centipede Hz (Josh "Deakin" Gibb sat out Painting With, and Lennox was absent from 2018's murky Tangerine Reef). It's music that seems designed for a flesh-and-blood live setting, even as its studio atmospherics contribute to the album's radiant textures.
The lyrics, while inscrutable as ever, gesture towards quiet contemplation and the nostalgia that togetherness brings; vocally, AnCo have never sounded smoother, from Lennox's choir-boy exaltations to the surprisingly elegant vocal takes from Dave "Avey Tare" Portner, who's typically been known for more wild-eyed expressionism. But it's Gibb who steals the show on closer "Royal and Desire," letting his own mid-range tone ring out in a manner not unlike My Morning Jacket's Jim James, with a gorgeous saxophone line providing the perfect foil.
Throughout their career, AnCo have remained largely out of conversation with what's happening in popular music. But the stretched-out vibes of Time Skiffs fit in the current indie environment with surprising ease, given the recent trend towards more jam band–inflected sounds coming from acts like the War on Drugs and Real Estate. Even as they recall their own past, Animal Collective continues to push their work into new, exciting places — and Time Skiffs serves as a reminder of their singular gifts. Grade: B+
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