It’s time to continue the Animal Collective discography dive! Honestly, I stopped at a bit of a weird place, right in the middle of their amazing 4-album run; Feels left off with a very soft, dreamy sound, and Strawberry Jam is here to completely subvert any expectations you had of the band. I’ve been loving where they’ve been going so far - the relaxing, beautiful sounds created on Sung Tongs and Feels are amazing - but I knew, even before listening to Strawberry Jam in full, that it would totally switch lanes.
If there’s one thing that Animal Collective has been consistently great at, it’s experimenting with something new in each album. Projects like Danse Manatee and Feels exemplify that perfectly; it’s hard to listen to those albums and believe that the same band made both of them. Well, Strawberry Jam continues this streak of experimentation and new sounds, but this time, instead of going for experimental noises or song structures, they enter a somewhat new sonic area for the band in general.
No more folk-y songs! No more long build-ups of smooth sound! Strawberry Jam is what those people who’ve only heard the AnCo songs played on the radio have been waiting for. This is their big step toward psychedelic, electronic pop. The sounds here are strange and occasionally glitchy! Probably the biggest thing to notice is how much more energy there seems to be here in contrast to Feels. While a lot of the songs on Feels focused on creating a surrounding atmosphere that evokes feelings of calm or melancholy, a lot of the songs here on Strawberry Jam go in the opposite direction, trying to pack bursts of emotion into sections of music that are messed with and controlled to be perfectly chaotic. This album is fun! Sure, it has its emotional moments (will discuss later), but a lot of the songs are just packed with energy, and are great songs to just let course through you. This is probably the first time AnCo has ever really been super danceable; there are songs here that feel just like dancing, they are so beautifully energetic.
The instrumentals are very often electronic, but still contain the great experimental guitars seen in their earlier works. Unlike albums like Campfire Songs, though, Strawberry Jam focuses, rather than on creating an intimate, amateur sound, on getting each sound to work together to build these totally unique and lovely songs. The opening track, “Peacebone”, functions as an immediate introduction to the weird sounds of this album; right after the strange “b o n e f i s h”, there is a cacophony of weird, blippy electronic noises. The song then puts itself together into a more regular song structure, with Avey Tare singing over the messy sounds. This song represents the experimentation and the new direction on this album well; the catchy, fun verses and chorus show off the more poppy sounds they are working toward, while the noisy opening and the abrasive yelling and the strange, bubbly(?) ending shows all of the new things the band is trying out. It’s just a really fun track, overall - what a great opening to this weird album.
So, lyrics and meanings? This is where my analysis of the album begins to fall apart a bit. There are themes that can be seen in some of the lyrics; for instance, parts of the first two songs show a focus on the idea of growing up and the past - a theme that you can see in AnCo songs as far back as Spirit. “Chores” is pretty clearly about smoking weed, which is one of the less surprising topics to be covered in an Animal Collective song. There are also some deeper topics explored in a few other songs that I’ll talk about, but what a lot of these songs really do well is just paint a story-like picture. This isn’t a storytelling album in the way that Sung Tongs is, for instead of telling tales through strange lyrics, Strawberry Jam creates songs that perfectly capture the spirit of the story they tell. “Winter Wonderland”, for example, pretty clearly depicts a scene where a neighborhood is entering the holiday season and enjoying the cold weather, but what really makes this song work is the music that accompanies the lyrics. Even though it isn’t really traditionally winter-y sounding, the cluttered, tinny, and energetic song still manages to perfectly evoke images of a winter scene, especially during the perfect chorus (seriously! This chorus is amazing!). Actually, that’s something I want to talk about a bit - this album is so… wintery sounding? It shouldn’t be, really, but every time I listen to it in full, I can only feel the feelings of warmth against cold air and the cozy inside of a house with a fire going. Why?! The album art should also directly contradict this image, but it doesn’t for me! Its bright colors seem to just make me imagine snow and happiness during winter. I’m not sure why. But I’m happy it does; that cozy winter feeling is one of the reasons I love this album so much.
So let’s talk about the heart of this album, and why I have it at such a high score. There is a run of three songs on this album - “For Reverend Green”, “Fireworks”, and “#1”, that I believe to be the second best three-song-run in all of AnCo’s discography (best is in the next album!). The songs before these each have their own spirit and fun meaning, and the songs afterward make for a chill, laid-back ending, but these three are what really let this album shine.
“For Reverend Green” is one of the aforementioned songs with a much deeper meaning behind it. In this track, Avey once again talks about the miseries of adulthood and the joys of childhood, but here it feels so much more profound. “From one moment to a next” - something about this song really strikes me. The contrast of the depressing pictures of adult life with the happy memories and visions of being a child is hard-hitting, but the chorus is the bigger part to me; it seems to be some sort of refusal of acceptance, where Avey is rejecting what he sees as the horrors of adulthood, and refusing to give up on his childlike happiness. That combined with the dark imagery in the second verse and the repeating, growing outro make this song strangely emotional to me. It also sounds just beautiful, with a great repeating instrumental.
I’ve seen a lot of people declare “Fireworks” to be Animal Collective’s best song, and while I disagree, it’s hard to argue that much. This song is a confusing one, emotionally; it reminds me a bit of “Banshee Beat”, in that it combines sorrow and optimism to make for an ambiguous, powerful song. The song sometimes seems like a love song, especially in the chorus, when Avey seems to wish for a confusing dream, where he can be in a happy place with fireworks and the one he loves. Of course, the best part of this song is the bridge part. The chords change, the instrumental and Avey’s singing show a slow build to the end, and Avey sings, repeatedly, about so many things; it feels like he’s confessing his love for someone or something, and the build of the music is just perfect. This song really is all of the sounds on Strawberry Jam done to perfection.
And next is “#1”, arguably the most experimental on the album, and also one of the most conceptual. The instrumental is… maybe my favorite on the album? The slow connection of the descending notes in the beginning is wonderful, and the synths on this song indicate some of the band’s sounds to come perfectly. This song is totally weird, with strange out-of-beat synthy instrumentals and super distorted vocals, but it has a surprisingly lovely story behind the lyrics. Like so many other songs, “#1” is about the relationship between parent and child, but it’s so beautiful here! Avey’s lyrics show a loving relationship between a father and son, and Panda Bear’s wonderful backing vocal parts evoke emotions of pure love. That’s what gets me about this track, and a lot of this album; there’s so much love behind the songs. Whether it’s in the masterful way that the songs are crafted or in the emotions behind the lyrics, each track here has so much care and love in it, it’s hard not to fall in love in return.
Strawberry Jam is the one step that AnCo was moving toward in each album they put out beforehand; it’s the dive into psychedelic, electronic pop, the sound that will eventually define the band and their success. It isn’t the band’s most personal album, and it isn’t (in my opinion) their best either, but it’s a masterpiece of electronic experimentation and psychedelic pop. If you want something fun to do while drinking hot cocoa this winter, listen to this album! It’s the most wintery non-winter album I’ve ever heard.
If I hadn’t already listened to the album ahead, I would say this is AnCo’s most well put-together project ever. Every song really does work as is, and the sounds are so uniquely Animal Collective. I’m so happy to be listening to them again; I suggest you do too :)
Delicious-looking cover for a delicious-sounding album. Easy must-listen.
Favorite Songs: Peacebone, For Reverend Green, Fireworks, #1, Winter Wonderland, Derek
Least Favorite Songs: Cuckoo Cuckoo I guess