ALBUM REVIEW: Animal Collective, Time Skiffs
Updated: Feb 18, 2022
Where am I? - Time Skiffs is a reflective album.
Once a band transitions into their “festival headliner” mode, it’s often quite difficult for them to go back to a place where the music is being made selfishly. We’ve all seen the cycle before. Big numbers of Pitchfork, lots of intrigue, Governor’s Ball lineup, 6.8, Next band. It happened to Rhye, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Phoenix, Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire and of course, how could we forget Animal Collective. This group was flying high on Pitchfork from 2000-2009. They couldn’t get a grade other than a high 8 or a 9 if they tried. Then in the early aughts, like many of those contemporaries I previously listed, 6s and 7s, cased closed. I am not a Pitchfork simp (anymore), but as someone who was a genuine fan of AnCo, even I could see where the group slipped. “Today’s Supernatural” was way too muddy and ear piercing. “FloriDada” was cool but just seemed like an obligatory touring track. By this time, members Panda Bear and Avey Tare had already found success going solo, and the group felt fragmented.
In 2022, I’m realizing all that weird off-shooting served a final purpose, resulting in Time Skiffs, the group’s best album since their /mu/core classic Merriweather Post Pavilion. You see, while Bear and Tare were working overtime to keep The Beach Boys inspired melodies from sinking under a thick layer of sonic muck, Geologist and Deakin had this strange obsession with nature. Tangerine Reef, the group’s only album without Panda Bear, was brought to live largely in part to Deakin’s insistence. Then we had the odd Record Store Day exclusive Meeting of the Waters EP, which featured just Tare and Geologist. This was recorded in the rainforest itself, with some bits actually being tracked underwater. Imagine these four Baltimore buddies, coming together in their 40s for one more project, It’s like something out of the Wes Anderson universe. The record is filmic in the journey it takes the listener on, but poppy in the same way their classic work has always been.
This is 45 minutes of uncompromising electronic, folk, rock and pop music that sounds unlike anything I’ve ever heard in my life. Truthfully, I knew this album would be something special after loving all four singles, which is rare for me. In the context of the record, the shorter cuts “Walker” and “We Go Back” become richer respites from all the sound play. “We Go Back” is a particular favorite of mine, it registers to me as psychedelic math rock in how each instrument is placed like interlocking gears. Panda Bear’s buoyant voice is chopped in such a clever way, as he sings “Over and over our song on my brain/I go back/We go back and I play it again”. This theme of nostalgia and reliving the past is even more impactful on the other two singles. “Prester John” sees the band weary of the world for the first time in their career, side-by-side they weep to mend the listener’s broken heart and soul. The mix is rich with bass, repetitive nature sounds and cymbal-heavy drumming that serves as a solid foundation for the vocal acrobatics. “Here’s a little trick/How to look at what is really living/Treating every day/As an image of a moment that’s passed” feels like something that is cliche in the present but an epiphany on your deathbed. Like fuck! I wish I stopped to smell the roses and lived everyday like it was my last and yadda yadda, death.
Roping it all back to my point in the beginning, the singles are not tour focused. This is not three solid new tracks surrounded by a bunch of filler, “We Go Back” and “Strung With Everything” act simply as checkpoints in the middle of this psychedelic ocean voyage. Time Skiffs is best enjoyed with a new pair of headphones, after a bowl rip, from start to finish. Back-to-back, the openers of “Dragon Slayer” and “Car Keys” were mind blowing. I honestly thought I was in for a perfect album. The former is this looping, wailing little piece of indie electronic that has no concession to commerciality, but still ends up being catchy as fuck. “Car Keys”, on the other hand repurposes those weird “boing” sounds from their classic “Lion In A Coma” to great effect. It almost sounds like a modded out didgeridoo, putting me immediately in the vast desert landscape of Australia.
Even though I wouldn’t say each and every cut here is perfect, there is really not a song that I don’t love. Even deep ones like “Cherokee” serve a purpose to the overall vibe and have iconic segments. On this particular track, it’s the odd lyrics about M&Ms, the trippy organs and the crashing drums at the very end that make me physically incapable of skipping. It is clear that from the top to the bottom, this record was one that each member meticulously labored over in their own unique ways. Whether it be the wood clacking and alien synth sparkles of Deakin and Geologist on “Royal and Desire”, or the confident melodies on...literally every song from Tare, or the succinct percussive talents AND melodies of Panda Bear, this is an irreplaceable work of art. Never for the rest of my days did I think I would listen to a new Animal Collective album that was not only good, but nearly perfect. It’s not quite the youthful and fresh jubilee of their classic work, but all of that was creative lightning-in-a-bottle. This is the exact opposite of that, it’s effortful rather than effortless. It’s patient and gimmick-less in a way that nothing they’ve ever made has been, and for that reason I rank this as my second favorite Animal Collective album.