At first glance, there is nothing at all enticing about the cover of Animal Collective’s latest, “Strawberry Jam” — a hot swarm of magenta and crimson, molten strawberries mired in a viscous puddle, hot, black ooze sunken deep into pitted welts. But shelve the quick visual for a mere moment to consider the treat before you. Yes, it’s messy, but only because it’s fresh. Yes, it’s thick and gummy, but only because the sugars have melted into a rich glaze. And yes, it does look downright unappetizing, but really the mangled fruit is just a digestive chain foresight.
Save for the last detail, such is Animal Collective’s sound — a lot is violently thrown at the listener in what seems to be nothing more than a discombobulated mess, rife with tonal leaps, exultant screams and fiercely pulsing percussion. As Animal Collective have proven on six full-length albums, however, sometimes creating a little havoc is the only way to convey triumph in both tone and spirit.
Most immediately jarring (read: alluring) about Animal Collective — after moving past the album art — is the pitchy falsetto of lead singer Avey Tare (aka Dave Portner). His voice alone is able to achieve a contagious, unbridled thrill as it is thrown beyond the already sweeping melody, transforming from relaxed tenor to hurried grind to celebratory shout. The ebb and flow of Tare’s intonation weaves its own story through each of the album’s nine songs, tracing the progression from a momentum-building start to exhausted denouement.
This circuitous journey begins with album opener “Peacebone,” where Tare’s conversational timbre is relegated to second tier, as erratic layers of bouncing static and animal grunts take the spotlight. His voice is at its most wildly triumphant on “Fireworks,” the album’s nearly seven-minute masterpiece — although the optimism of the wholesome background hooting is tempered by the subtle weight of nostalgia and yearning, a sense evoked again on “Winter Wonder Land” when Tare wonders, “If you don’t believe you’re dying I won’t tell you that you’re dying / But do you not believe you’re dying just because it gets you down?”
However, it is not Avey Tare who brings this journey to its contented close, but rather the sweet vocals of band mate Panda Bear (otherwise known as Noah Lennox, who released his second solo release, the bright and benign “Person Pitch,” last March). On album-closer “Derek,” Panda is consistently sunny, with hazy percussion and handclaps thumping below the urgent swell of his youthful chants, capturing all the carefree splendor of playground taunt and summer camp cheer.
And while songs such as “For Reverend Green” showcase Tare’s penchant for raucous expression, “Derek” casts a reserved Panda in a moment of introspection: “What do you / See when you / See inside of me,” he sings toward hypnotizing repetition. In proper Animal Collective form, he still flexes his pitch, but in place of Tare’s rambunctious drawl, Panda delivers a more sensitive jingle that may be held within the diaphanous boundaries of Animal Collective’s syrupy spread.
Like most condiments, “Strawberry Jam” is a satisfying dollop of whimsy and excitement and tastes best when served fresh. In their seven years of making music, Animal Collective have poured similar ingredients into each carefully crafted piece, blending folk with pop, subtlety with ostentation and precision with abstraction; however, no matter the individual elements, each song stands as a magnificent spectacle, and each album becomes yet another fantastic microcosm of their peculiar utopia.