If you've been at all interested in indie rock over the course of the last several years, you probably cared about Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion when it was released in 2009, at least enough to have an opinion one way or the other about it. (If not, I realize this topic might seem only slightly more universal than the particulars of my fantasy football draft. Please bear with me.) Merriweather Post Pavilion is arguably the last "gotta have an opinion" indie rock record — last as in most recent, not last as in last, though I wouldn't be shocked if the latter ends up being the case. Nothing to come out of the indie world since has seemed nearly so momentous.1 When Merriweather was released, it was almost unanimously regarded as Animal Collective's best record, and generally regarded as the best record made by anybody that year. (Which was extra impressive/presumptive considering it was released only a few weeks into January.) Contrary to previous Animal Collective albums, Merriweather was likable from the very first listen: The melodies were engaging, the arrangements were (relatively) uncluttered and easy to follow, and the bottom end was heavy and danceable. It seemed deliberately less "weird" than previous Animal Collective releases, and yet still weird enough for the pop concessions to seem, for lack of a better term, revolutionary.
Part of what a lot of people loved about Merriweather was the idea that lots of other people — even those predisposed to loathe freak-folk groups based in New York City with socialist critter-oriented names — might come to love it, too. And there was evidence at the time to suggest that this was really happening: Merriweather was Animal Collective's best-selling album, debuting at no. 13 on the Billboard albums chart, and it helped the group graduate from playing clubs in big cities to filling theaters everywhere else.
But this being indie rock, the discussion quickly turned to whether this was really a good thing. Charles Aaron of Spin suggested that Animal Collective was about to become "the new Moby" — he didn't mean it in a good way — and suspected that he would probably "be sick of hearing/hearing about Merriweather Post Pavilion six months from now." This prompted yet another turn in the conversation about how worrying that Animal Collective was getting too popular was a reflection of indie insularity. Of course this wasn't pop music, it was only big on the Internet, the argument went, and thinking otherwise just meant you were blinkered.
Three years later, these are the undisputed facts about Animal Collective: It is one of the most popular and respected groups of its genre. Among devotees of that genre, the group's new album, Centipede Hz, is highly anticipated. For everybody else, Animal Collective is a marginally recognizable name. The band members can't be considered rock stars by any stretch of the definition, and this is certainly by design. Animal Collective was never in any real danger of being "too" popular outside of a significant but indisputably small enclave. Animal Collective appears to be precisely as popular as Animal Collective wants to be, which should be the goal of any artist working in any medium. Except: Is it bad for a creative enterprise if, at some point, its audience stops growing along with it? Or is this idea a thoroughly 20th-century concept that groups like Animal Collective helped to put to bed?
In the realm of Animal Collective records, Centipede Hz is a worthy, occasionally even excellent effort. It takes you places over the course of an hour that reside only in the universe of sound and sensation that Animal Collective has created over the course of 11 records. It is possible to play it a dozen times and have a dozen different opinions on it. It might even require a dozen listens for the songs to sound like songs; this is standard for an Animal Collective record, but it's still amazing to discover that beneath all the squiggly guitar lines and feral squawks and Stormtrooper laser blasts and Giorgio Moroder Morse code rhythms, are tunes that are as catchy as nursery rhymes.
So why do I feel vaguely disappointed by this album? If Merriweather Post Pavilion was emblematic of a moment when indie rock and pop music sensibilities appeared ready to, if not converge, then work in tandem like never before, Centipede Hz must be regarded as representative of a much different moment of retreat. I like this record; I'm just not sure I care about it all that much.
A few weeks ago these conflicted feelings about Centipede Hz rode shotgun as I embarked on a phone interview with Noah Lennox, the 34-year-old non–Ailuropoda melanoleuca who goes by Panda Bear with Animal Collective and on his solo records. Getting Lennox on the phone is not easy. Since 2004, he has lived in Lisbon, where he makes a home with his fashion-designer wife and two children. That means talking to Lennox costs more per minute than it does for a majority of phone-sex operators. But once he's on the line, Lennox is an agreeable conversationalist. He's a guy you wouldn't mind small-talking for a few hours at a backyard barbecue full of strangers. He says things like "sweet" and "it's cool" a lot. And he can bullshit about whatever sports team is currently active in your hometown.2 Overall, way more normal than his group's acidhead persona suggests.
Lennox and I spent a lot of time discussing how Centipede Hz was written during the first three months of 2011 in Animal Collective's hometown of Baltimore. (Another writing session took place later in 2011, and work on the album concluded earlier this year.) There is much to admire about the construction of Centipede Hz. It is a loose concept record about the radio; specifically, what happens to all those commercials and station identifications once they escape the Earth and get flung into outer space. (It's a little surprising there's not already an Animal Collective album about this.) There is no "story" to Centipede Hz, and the concept is hardly overbearing, but it does inform the sound of the record: The songs crackle and move in and out of focus; sometimes, like on the violently metallic opener "Moonjock," snippets of alien melodies and disembodied voices appear suddenly in the mix. (Listening to Centipede Hz is sometimes like that part during the opening credits of Pulp Fiction when the song suddenly switches from "Misirlou" to "Jungle Boogie," only you're watching it with your head out the window of a car driving underwater.) In other places, Centipede Hz is as straightforward as Animal Collective gets, like the song "Wide Eyed" (written and sung by the group's guitarist Deakin, who sat out the sample-heavy Merriweather), which boasts Centipede's best groove and is reminiscent of pre-"Sledgehammer" Peter Gabriel.
Rather than piece together the songs on Centipede Hz from parts contributed by the band members via e-mail, as is the group's custom, Animal Collective opted to work together in person and play live instruments again. Deakin was back on guitar, Avey Tare sat in on keyboards, and Lennox returned to his drum kit. For a group that sometimes seems to exist exclusively on the Web, creating music IRL was a major development. The idea was to give the record more of a "live" and aggressive band sound, which Animal Collective achieves most successfully on Centipede's energetic rivulets of controlled sonic fury in the record's front half.
"The last album we made, the way we worked on it was with longer samples, where we were just manipulating with our fingers. It was more of a mental exercise," Lennox told me. "There were performances where we'd come offstage without having really sweated at all, or gotten physical at all. It was cool, but I think after doing that for a couple of years the impulse was to go the opposite way and do something more visceral … It's become a habit for us to switch around what we're doing and do something different from the last record. Creatively, we're pretty restless people. That helped take the pressure off, if there was any."
The "pressure" comment was in response to a question I asked over and over again in different ways throughout our interview: Was Animal Collective intentionally trying to back away from the popularity of Merriweather Post Pavilion? Centipede Hz is a less obviously immediate record: The beats are not as grabby or propulsive, and it's generally more abrasive. Was this a conscious attempt to keep Animal Collective's audience at a more manageable and "safe" level? And if so, what does this say about the current state of indie rock?
At first I asked the question this way: "How did you feel about the reaction that Merriweather Post Pavilion received? I'm sure it felt good that people liked it, but were you ever worried about becoming too popular?"
And here's how Lennox responded: "I feel like there's been a bunch of times where we'll finish something and think, This could appeal to a lot of people, and I've almost always been wrong. So, I've tried to stop thinking about the way something might be perceived or interpreted. I don't know if we ever had conversations about that sort of thing. I feel like it's kind of a dangerous way of going about things. The safest way for us seems to be just to make sure we're really excited about what we're doing, and if people hate it, at least we can defend it in an honest way."
Lennox answered me reasonably and intelligently. But I wasn't quite satisfied with his response. How can a band that has established a long, successful career — a near-impossible feat that requires more than a little self-awareness — not think about how it's perceived? Musicians say this all the time in interviews, and it never rings true. It's not just a matter of not reading your own reviews so you're not influenced by them; for any artist with an audience, an unwanted opinion about what you've created is just one errant Facebook message or "@ you suck!" tweet away. Even if you live in Lisbon, this seems pretty inescapable. And that must have at least a subconscious effect on your work if you're at all human. So I rephrased the question: "Obviously you can't really control how popular you are. But the degree to which you can determine how catchy or accessible your music is, was the idea to be deliberately less pop-friendly this time around?"
Lennox, again, replied smartly and somewhat evasively: "Not so much. It's just sort of what happened. Merriweather was maybe simpler, but there were certain things about it that were easier to follow on the first listen. On most of the songs [on Centipede Hz] there's a lot going on. I feel like I had a different perspective after listening to it three or four times than I did the first time."
Our conversation then shifted to Animal Collective's headlining appearance last summer at the Pitchfork Music Festival, where the group premiered many of the songs on Centipede Hz at the expense of the group's "hits." This wasn't unusual for Animal Collective, which has long concentrated on newly written material while on tour. But it was a little unorthodox considering the setting: Eighteen thousand people is a very large audience to run the risk of disappointing. Sticking mostly to tunes that weren't going to be released for another year was a ballsy move that was admirable on one hand, and alienating and potentially even annoying on the other. Again, I pressed.
"You don't want to be a dick," Lennox finally said. "There's people I've talked to at shows who are like, 'I drove eight hours to come to this show and you guys didn't play this song and that really bummed me out.' That's not what we want to do. We don't want that to happen. But at the same time you don't want to just go through the motions up there."
By the end of the interview, Lennox had gotten his point across: Animal Collective — honestly, truly, for real this time, OK? — doesn't think about its audience when it comes to making creative decisions. Making music for Lennox and his bandmates is an inherently self-indulgent exercise; the only sin is doing something you're not into. This strikes me as a healthy attitude. Public taste is fickle. And doing things their own way has clearly served Animal Collective well up to this point, both artistically and commercially.
After I got off the phone with Lennox, I realized the problem I had with Centipede Hz had nothing to do with Animal Collective and everything to do with my own outdated expectations.
Charles Aaron, in his Spin piece about ruing the day that Animal Collective might become too ubiquitous for him to enjoy, rightly asked himself why he cared whether other people embraced something he thought was great. "Is it simply because of an altruistic urge to share great music with the world, and as a result, make the world a better, more enriched, place?"
For Aaron, this idea was sort of a joke. ("If I were a DJ at an NPR-affiliated station, that line might work, but otherwise, nah.") But at the risk of sounding like a rube, yes, there's a part of me that still buys into the altruism thing. I think some records are so good and potentially game-changing that they deserve to be experienced by large groups of people. And, sure, I'd even stump for Merriweather Post Pavilion on those grounds if Animal Collective didn't remind me that we're all so, so utterly alone.
I came of age during the alt-rock era — which was also the gangsta-rap era, and the big-hat arena-country era. In the '90s, you could still divide music history into distinct periods destined to fall away and be replaced by insurgents from a new generation. I've been conditioned to look at pop music this way; though I should know better, I'm always secretly on the lookout for the new Nirvana that will change the world. But Merriweather Post Pavilion was not Nevermind. There will never be another Nevermind, because there will never again be a predominant media narrative. Our media narratives, like the media itself, are fractured. You can choose the narrative in which Animal Collective (or Skrillex or 2 Chainz or Ariel Pink) is meaningful, but you can't pretend that your narrative is the only one that matters, not anymore.
This is something that anyone with any contemporary media savvy already knows, including Animal Collective. Centipede Hz isn't trying to be anything other than what it is: an Animal Collective album for people who already like Animal Collective albums. And that's perfectly fine. Centipede Hz is very good at catering to this select group of listeners. It likely won't make a dent outside of its demographic, but that is no longer expected of any work of art these days. Collectives are for animals; us humans are fine being on our own.