AOTY 2023
Animal Collective - Time Skiffs
Feb 5, 2022 (updated Feb 5, 2022)
Despite their veteran status as the largest pioneers of contemporary neo-psychedelia, you never quite know what to expect with a new Animal Collective release. Discounting the ambient and environmentalist visual album of Tangerine Reef, it’s been six years since the quartet released Painting With, a jaunty and raucous cacophony of overlapping vocal layers and squelchy synthesiser. Time Skiffs hardly seems to exist in the same universe as that album, borrowing much more from the group's washed-out ambient-leaning forays into psychedelia than the staccato nature of its predecessor. A lot can change in six years, and here, Animal Collective is an entirely refreshed and updated quad, toying with new ideas that are a welcome change of pace for a band that began to tread water following Centipede Hz. In many ways, the wavering and watery Tangerine Reef serves as the foundational backdrop for Time Skiffs, as it pulls incredible sonic passages out of voiceless and murky depths of washed-out synth expanses. The results are reverb-drenched instrumental palettes, serving as a filter for rekindled energy as they pen some of their most impressive songwriting in decades. While some detours can be challenging, especially as the group stretch beyond conventional track lengths, Time Skiffs is a gentle reminder that Animal Collective is still more than adept at diving head-first into black pools without sight of the seabed, and pulling out musical pearls as they resurface.

It doesn’t take long for Animal Collective to get the ball rolling. Dragon Slayer’s opening warbling synths feel lifted directly from King Gizzard’s Butterfly 3000, before an assuredly confident chorus crashes in, with echoey vocals ebbing and flowing in time with the song’s lush instrumental layers. Car Keys is similar in its bombast, with Avey Tare’s falsetto used to full effect as the tension increases. However, compared to the previous track, symbiosis between singer and backing band is hardly achieved. While the core elements of another impressive song are present, it’s almost as if these sounds have been scattered in the mix haphazardly, as what should be a solid homogenisation instead is much more disjointed and grating. Thankfully Prester John doesn’t mark a repeat of this issue, as its rich harmonies provide satisfying contrast to sparkling synths and robust bass notes. Thin percussion provides additional quirk to a song that indulges in an immense build, as the vocals and backing soar into an anthemic repeated closing theme.

Starting their early careers as clear stylistic parallels, MGMT are borrowed from heavily for the lengthy Strung With Everything. Its second half’s rowdy and excited call-and-response performance harkens back to Oracular Spectacular-style song progressions, and while notably more unkempt and carefree in its presentation than the cleaned-up synth-pop it emulates, the DNA of extended track outro and all too familiar momentum is a fitting mimic to indietronica-leaning work that has evolved away from its 2000s origins. While endearing as a tribute to the late Scott Walker, the following namesake sparks a string of a middling midsection for Time Skiffs. Despite its lyrics being a celebration and reflection for one of rock and avant-garde’s most prominent figures, the song’s lurching rhythms are unbalanced and sloppy in their presentation, without a satiating climax or change-up in tension. Commendably, it’s one of the shortest tracks on the album; the same can’t be said for the consequent Cherokee, a near eight-minute endeavour that sees Avey Tare try his hardest to impersonate Ezra Keonig’s recent Father of the Bride cadences. Taking almost sixty seconds just to get started, the goofy delivery of the lyrics saps any lustre out of what is otherwise a gratifying arrangement. Bare and raw drums plod along with climbing bass, and as the track pushes past halfway, its reverberated vocals are incorporated more instrumentally into the mix, allowing more twinkling synth to shine through. Animal Collective simultaneously kills its own ideas though, by injecting an egregious melody that derails much of the excitement found elsewhere in the mix. We Go Back is similarly annoying, with its lead refrain deafened by overzealous bass, suffocating an eye-rollingly simplistic chord progression. Compounding on this, its divulsion into formless vocalisations in its last third does little to reinforce anything that came prior.

Mercifully, Time Skiffs ends on a solid high with the blissful and tranquil Royal and Desire. Here, ghostly vocals and keyboard percussion intertwine beautifully, enveloping the listener in a comfortable and gentle rest befitting of final track status. It does everything a good closer should do, by strongly reinforcing the sonic aesthetics that came before it, as well as carrying a poignant and noteworthy closing statement. Animal Collective’s often cryptic lyricism makes this last checkpoint a difficult one, but the repetition “we’ll always come ‘round” is a safe and cozy accompaniment to the slow-paced and gently simmering waves of ambience washing over it.

Time Skiffs had enormous boots to fill. It carried with it some immense weight following the lukewarm reception of Painting With and Tangerine Reef, but for the most part, holds its own as another example of the group continuing to innovate and expand into new territory. While it isn’t as gigantic a leap as a Merriweather Post Pavilion or Strawberry Jam, it comfortably coasts along, providing just enough excitement to make its journey worthwhile.

Favourite Tracks:

Dragon Slayer
Prester John
Royal and Desire

Least Favourite Tracks:

We Go Back


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