You can take the beast out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the beast. Until a few years ago, Animal Collective had the peculiar distinction of being the “strangest band alive,” due in no small part to the group’s psychedelic sensibility, radical sonic experimentation and blatant disregard for conventional conceptions of “music.” But in 2009 it looked like the band had ditched its odd routine in favor of the ethereal and accessible pop on Merriweather Post Pavilion, an acclaimed effort that earned the group a broader audience.
While writing their next album, all four members of the band moved back to their hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, where as childhood friends they had originally begun playing music. Fortunately, this trip down memory lane appears to have paid off. The resulting record, Centipede Hz, marks a startling return to the band’s weird ways of old.
When listening to this rock-solid record, one thing you won’t be is bored. On “Today’s Supernatural,” the band races through time signatures, starts and stops, and the music explodes into chaotic noise at arbitrary moments, with the organ creating a carnival-like atmosphere.
Gone are the harmonious electronics of the last album. Instead we get the massive buzzing synths of “Moonjock,” which sound like malfunctioning gas generators. To top it all off, the band has chosen to submerge the entirety of the record in a cacophony of distorted radio signals and recordings, which come across sometimes as humorous, but often as eerily disturbing.
It’s tempting to write off such an out-there album as yet another strung-out, spaced-out freakout. Centipede Hz is imbued with a great deal of lyrical maturity that cynical ears could easily miss. The vocal lines of “New Town Burnout” and “Moonjock” are some of the best the band has ever devised, and several tracks are pleasantly reminiscent of Rubber Soul-era Beatles writing. And rather than put forth the same sorts of abstract lyrical collages that have spotted their work in the past, here Animal Collective presents vignettes of childhood, lamentations on growing older and a pining for the past. Take, for instance, the psychedelic “Today’s Supernatural,” in which the band remembers having “met you in Baltimore laughing so loud,” only to follow this recollection with absurd references to an “erratic see-saw” and a “bionic hee-haw.”
Animal Collective has the capacity to produce melodies and songs that breach the barrier between the avant-garde and the universal, yet they choose, here and elsewhere, to drown their creations in swamps of digital gurgles, squelches of radio feedback and hyperactive outbursts. Now, why would they mar their best work with weirdness for weirdness’ sake?
An explanation can be found on the wistful “Rosie Oh,” where founding member Avey Tare sings: “As I left my home I cried / And a substituted figure tried / to reconcile the things I’d left behind.” The members of Animal Collective are no longer wide-eyed kids. They are grown-ups struggling with their newfound adulthood, attempting to reconcile their edgy adolescence with their maturity. They have work to do before they can strike a perfect balance, but for now, Centipede Hz serves as a touching milestone in the ongoing growth of a strange and singular band.