Will the first disc I review in 2009 be the best I hear all year? Quite possibly, given how favorably Merriweather Post Pavilion compares to Animal Collective’s previous full-length, Strawberry Jam, my choice for 2007’s album of the year.
Back then, mid-’00s freak-pop tracks such as “Who Could Win a Rabbit” and “The Purple Bottle” had nudged the Baltimore foursome toward the indie mainstream, and Jam—a far more graspable project than any other in the AC catalog—seemed to mark the logical next step in a gradual evolution from left-field experimentation to (semi-)structured composition. At that rate, principals Panda Bear and Avey Tare appeared destined to host MTV’s Video Music Awards no later than 2035.
Listening to Pavilion, however, Jam now seems more summation than continuation. Rather than venture further into the realm of hooks and hummability, Animal Collective has paused its pop progression to reach into its past, not for avant experimentation, but for the relaxed settings atop which its free forms once floated. Where Jam slapped its charms across our cheek, Pavilion whispers its delights in our ear. To borrow a lyric from “Also Frightened,” it all feels “just like we’re dreaming.”
The album functions well for both background (ballad “Bluish,” in particular, glides gently by) and intent listening (the tribal beat of “Summertime Clothes” will jostle any workday routine). The best cuts actually seem intent on serving both purposes: “In the Flowers” opens as a zero-gravity space-drift in the early Genesis tradition, then rockets off with a sudden burst of energy; Panda and Avey spend much of “My Girls” trading lyrics atop intensifying psychedelia before locking step for the lushest harmonies this side of The Beach Boys; and “Brother Sport” bobs blithely for a bit, detours into ringing, too-noisy-for-nightclubs electro and—whoop!—morphs into the record’s glorious closing segment, a series of echoing and cascading vocals that practically guarantees you’ll repeat the entire experience, ad infinitum.