If, like me, you think of (dare I say, ‘have correctly identified’?) the back-to-back of ‘For Reverend Green’ and ‘Fireworks’ of 2007’s Strawberry Jam as the most towering of Animal Collective’s many lofty achievements, then perhaps you share my slight resentment towards the reputation Panda Bear has garnered for himself recently as ‘the creative one’ of the band. Following the release of Panda Bear’s staggering Person Pitch it felt that, just because he lacked a solo album, Avey Tare had been marginalised, made to look as if he were being carried by his ‘more talented’ band mate. Where’s the respect for ‘The Purple Bottle’? Where’s the love for ‘Peacebone’?
I had hoped that the release of Down There would finally close this perceived gulf between the two songwriters, but it would seem that Avey isn’t interested in engaging with Panda Bear in combative terms. This is no demonstration of ability; this is no opus – it’s just Avey putting out some material, take it or leave it. It’s difficult to be comparative between Animal Collective-related releases because each new album usually feels more like a jagged diagonal move than a linear, forward progression. Nevertheless, here goes: Down There relies far less heavily on the pop-based structures of MPP, but is a little (a little) lighter in tone than Avey’s work within ODDSAC.
But this is a murky piece of work, to be sure. From the opening seven-minute waltz, Down There finds Avey at his most wordy (even by his standards) – as if these songs were just half-formed vehicles for the therapeutic outpouring of darkness, rather than bona fide jams. These tracks often lack form, almost always undervalue vocal hooks, and sometimes descend into outright tunelessness.
Early single ‘Lucky 1’ is about as coherent as these songs get; the thumping kick of ‘Oliver Twist’ the closest to a groove; the gloomy slurs of ‘Ghost of Books’ the closest to a chorus. Sure, we get snatches of the almost sing-along in songs like ‘Oliver Twist’, which finds Avey at his most direct and playful. But, by and large, especially in the album’s midsection, we’re adrift in a sea of swirling dirge; Tare’s trademark yelps, howls and warbling drifting in and out of focus, stripped of humanisation thanks to distortive vocal filters.
That’s not to say that the album is bad, or that it’s not a worthwhile listen. I should hardily have to tell you that Avey Tare is a consistently vibrant musician, one who is always at least interesting even when at his most alienating. But rather than choosing to submit his debut album as irrefutable proof of his song writing prowess, Avey treats it as a playground-cum-laboratory; a chance to experiment with the sort of sonic abstractions that would have clouded the verse-chorus directness of Animal Collective’s more recent work. Laced with skittering, claustrophobic beats and affectively dark moods, this is Avey Tare at his most experimental – and inaccessible – in years.