The Lead Review: Lee Arizuno On Animal Collective’s Painting With

With Animal Collective's tenth studio album out tomorrow, Lee Arizuno explores the latest and most disappointing of offerings from "Little Donkey, Hello Kitty and Crazy Frog".

There was once a time when a new Animal Collective album was something to look forward to. Sure, they were overpraised at first, as American man-bands so often are. But despite the longueurs on those early LPs, unique highs would emerge like fleeting firebirds from the strange tundra laid out by their loops and lo-fi acoustics.

Whether they were fucking with the fabric of song in the fanned-out ‘Leaf House’ or capturing a crystal world in ‘Bees’, there seemed to be a secret code behind Animal Collective’s psychedelia that we just hadn’t cracked yet. They even managed to do a Mercury Rev with 2007’s Strawberry Jam, an all-killer Proper Album of ultra-vivid pop whose Can/Faust-model techno-primitivism swept your feet out and forced you to look at the sky. After that, Merriweather Post Pavilion and Centipede Hz felt like self-conscious attempts at consolidation. Most of their songs stank like plasticine balls in which too many colours had been manged together, but reviewers hedged their bets just in case they were missing something.

So when I tell you that Painting With is absolute dogshit from start to finish, you know that what follows isn’t some stunt hatchet job on a band I don’t care for. It’s as if they’ve deliberately used their powers for evil this time. In fairness, co-founding member Teddy Bear has said that they set out to make three-minute pop songs partly because they knew it wasn’t their strong suit. Admirable enough, but by their nature experiments often fail – and this nightmare of airless forced fun emphasises the point in garish capital letters.

The kindest thing you could say for the promotional materials heralding its release is that they manage your expectations well. Lead single ‘Floridada’ sets the template for the whole album, their trademark, often plaintive harmonies transmuted into an oppressively jaunty kids’ TV theme tune ravaged by EDM belches. Lyrically, it’s a faux–naïf tableaux centred on "the queen of everything fancy" (never the king, is it?) in the sunshine state. It’s as catchy as a PTSD flashback to that week spent imprisoned in a ball pool, being tortured by playschool teachers as a cackling Skrillex looked on. In a few years’ time, some former Domino employee who’d been charged with promoting this thing will hear it again and crack, throwing the nearest person over a rail like the troubled nanny in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

If that sounds harsh, you’ll soon be able to hear the whole album and make up your own mind. But trust me, something similar applies to every song here. ‘Natural Selection’ is a sing-song number with faux–naïf lyrics about other people’s materialism, and EDM belches. ‘Summing The Wretch’ is a sing-song number with faux–naïf lyrics about being on the internet or something, and EDM belches. ‘Golden Gal’ is a sing-song number with faux–naïf lyrics that seem to patronisingly hymn empowered women, and EDM belches. This hell never lets up and there isn’t a moment when you don’t just want it to stop. There are no hidden gems, no strange spaces or sudden revelations. For variety you have to make do with ‘Lying In The Grass’, whose autotuned vocal scales and electronics alike sound like a toy robot vomiting for three minutes straight.

You can see why the band and their people would want to tease out a theme that would travel – painting – and why this might fall flat when their aesthetic is so definitively slippery. Animal Collective have always been intuitive improvisers who’ve occasionally stumbled upon and cultivated magic. Communicable ideas, narrative lyrics and durable compositions aren’t really their thing. The pitch for Painting With is that they were inspired by Cubism and Dada. The truth is that you would never guess. Sure, in Floridada (geddit?) they manage their usual baby talk and a weak ‘collagen/collaging’ pun (it being about a rich girl in Florida) but that’s hardly what Zurich’s tricksters were getting at. A better artistic analogue would be the old dancing baby viral video, which the song’s horrendous video accidentally recreates three minutes in, to facepalming effect.

Animal Collective have always been ill-served by their associates – if your heart fails to sink on seeing an artist named Tickley Feather or an album called Warm Blanket listed on the discography of their Paw Tracks label, you’re either not human or not British. But you have to wonder if Brian DeGraw of Gang Gang Dance, the mastermind behind the artwork for Painting With, has a score to settle. He was apparently inspired by “reading books on higher consciousness” while staying in Woodstock. But his depictions of the band with quasi-fractal penii emerging from their half-collapsed heads suggests he didn’t take his cue from spiritual seekers like Hilma Af Klint or František Kupka. Little Donkey, Hello Kitty and Crazy Frog out of the Animal Collective look suitably alarmed at their predicament. Given the guffawing closing of windows these images will provoke, could DeGraw unconsciously have been trying to level the playing field for their respective bands’ popularity?

There’s also a fully interactive, 100% digital ‘app’ that allows you to ‘paint’ something in real time with another mooted Animal Collective fan, and share the results on social media in order to publicise the album on the record company’s behalf – without the hassle of getting paid! To add insult to injury, you are expected to listen to ‘Lying In The Grass’ while you go about it. If, like me, you don’t own any Apple products you could always download the image below and use Microsoft Paint to draw a rudimentary cock and balls on the head of Ghostface Miffy out of the Animal Collective for your own satisfaction. DeGraw has made it easy for you.

Like the band members, I’m thirty-mumble years old. In your 20s, contrasting childhood perceptions with your still-fresh first experiences of adult loss and adversity can be enlightening and emotionally charged. As we drift toward our 40s, though, should we still be bouncing around in this Neverland? Their take on maturity would be welcome. Instead, we get Iggle Piggle out of the Animal Collective remembering his Grandpops (‘Bagels in Kiev’) and ‘Vertical’, a sing-song number about things being tall, with EDM belches ("My feet can’t cross the parking lot / The parking lot is way too hot" goes the chorus). The gang apparently went to Montessori-style schools where kids are encouraged to develop their creativity and so on, which suggests they might not have been plugged into the pop culture circuit like the rest of us. Perhaps the only formative musical memories they have to draw on are of nursery songs rather than Madonna, and Painting With is what people who weren’t raised on pop music think it sounds like. Either way, you can’t go one bar without wanting to shout, "Go to bed!"

The animal collective this godawful album most often calls to mind is the Pathetic Sharks from Viz. There’s no shortage of great modern psych out there right now, so I can only counsel you to avoid Painting With like a children’s birthday party. If it’s mystery you want, stick with Grumbling Fur. If you’re after exuberant polyrhythms, pray that the Boredoms release something soon. If you want a picture of the future for Animal Collective, imagine a digitally animated clown shoe stamping on a human face – forever.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today