Animal Collective’s music has always boasted a certain amount of impenetrability. Even the albums that lean more heavily on folk music tropes come with a set of barriers that keep the listener at an arm’s length. That’s not to say that the band’s music can’t be moving—Merriweather Post Pavillion exudes great joy through its looping, soaring electronics—but Animal Collective’s tendency to muddy its own hooks and melodies can sometimes work against it, especially on the group’s last release, the bloated Centipede Hz.
Standing in stark contrast to that record is the band’s latest, Painting With. Where the previous outing couldn’t make sense of the sonic mess, Painting With is remarkably concise. The album as a whole clocks in at a swift 40 minutes. That doesn’t mean that the sonic experiments and complex rhythms are gone, just that they’re pared down. The sometimes indulgent, unwieldy tangents of previous records are reined in here, which allows the band creative freedom by, somewhat contradictorily, restricting its vision. The longest song is “Golden Gal,” which still comes in under five minutes, and it’s perhaps the lone track that could go even longer considering the songwriting depth on display. It starts with a Golden Girls audio clip, builds into a slinky, slower jam not unlike the first few minutes of MPP‘s “My Girls,” and then sees Avey Tare musing on objectification and gender roles.
“Golden Gal” is the most lyrically pointed track here. First single “FloriDada” is at once murky and propulsive, kicking the album into high gear right off the bat. “Vertical,” perhaps the album’s best track, works in similar ways, drawing on the emotional power that exists in the push and pull of Tare and Panda Bear’s melodies. The two trade and interweave melodic lines, creating cohesion out of tension. Really, that’s Painting With‘s greatest strength; it sees Panda Bear, who does some of his best vocal work on “Natural Selection,” and Avey Tare working in tandem, their voices sounding better here than on either of their recent solo albums.
Painting With is, of course, more than just Tare and Bear trading wobbly melodies like old pros sparring in a gym. There’s an urgency and concision to the instrumental elements, providing solid ground for the two vocalists to build off of. “Lying In The Grass” bubbles to life with strange synth sounds, but becomes something much more solid when a clear piano joins the mix, followed by snaps and claps far in the background, as various wind instruments try to claw their way to the front of the mix. There’s the sense that Animal Collective has approached Painting With with a sense of looseness. These are busy arrangements, as on the chaotic “Summing The Wretch” and the 8-bit video game on acid jam “The Burglars,” but they’re by no means suffocating. If Centipede Hz suffered from self-seriousness in its songwriting, the majority of Painting With feels playful. It’s in the way the pulsing “Spilling Guts” slowly adds layers without crowding the arrangement, or how “Bagels In Kiev” starts off as a sonic mess and then completely opens up, all floating synth lines and jittery, stuttering drum beats.
If Animal Collective overreached on Centipede Hz, the unwieldy songs punishing the listener more than anything else, Painting With aims for more accessibility. That’s not to say this isn’t a challenging or complex record, but rather that it’s arranged in a way that’s much more inviting and playful. Animal Collective is capable of crafting self-serious, masterful records; Painting With shows that the group is perhaps even better at making something meaningful when it loosens up.