If you want to feel old, keep in mind that Animal Collective is coming near their third decade together as a band. And six years later (almost to the day), they have finally returned with a completely rejuvenated sound created with the same inviting ambiance and unhurried vibe of the band’s halcyon days in the late aughts. But still, the record possesses a personality and methodology all its own, and contains all the defining characteristics of their music: anodyne vocal harmonies, slowly uncoiling song structures, and a genre-bending patchwork of clamorous psychedelic rock and experimental pop that can be mesmerizing in small doses but frustrating when stretched to album length.
Throughout the past decade, the quartet functioned like a constantly mutating organism, reshaping their sound and style not just album-to-album, but occasionally mid-sentence. But in response to the success of their avant-garde breakthrough, they spent much of the following decade deconstructing indie rock’s increasingly spongiose borders while serving up dense reflections on many weighty and existential themes. And all of this makes Time Skiffs even more of a surprising occurrence, a far calmer record than one would expect from the group.
Opener “Dragon Slayer” sets the tone for the album and wears the band’s early Beach Boy comparisons on its sleeve with echoey electric guitars and ornate harmonies. Those harmonies make a smooth transition into even louder and more prominent ones on “Car Keys,” while the majestic six-minute “Prester John” stands out as a spaced-out odyssey in line with some of the band’s best work. Racking up the most Spotify streams so far, it seems to be a fan favorite. A more of a toe-tapping approach to the experimental folk, “Strung With Everything” is perhaps the most eccentric song on the album with its smashed drums and huskily ecstatic vocals. It is yet another thrilling piece that simply needs to be enjoyed rather than trying to second guess where it is leading. The band’s tender tribute to Scott Walker, aptly titled “Walker” is the album’s most pop-leaning moment and appears to be another fan favorite. The track’s thickly maximal, softly percussive textures accompany energetic xylophone hits and the pumped-up chorus collapses in on itself for the last minute of the song. It is upbeat and quicker in a way many of the other tracks on the album are not.
In contrast, things get almost outright jazzy on centerpiece “Cherokee” before transforming into a wave of soaring synths and layered, echo-coated singing. It is one of those Animal Collective tracks that feels like a collage of styles but contains none of that noodling that plagued much of the band’s previous work over the past couple of years. Things get more melodic on the slow-tempo tune “Passer-by,” while swaying track “We Go Back” falls into a stream of spiritual nirvana: “Bend to the moment, feel no thought / Listen to the sound of people hoping / That in the moment there will be bliss / A cause for the moment to be healing and to begin.” The moving and deeply beautiful “Royal And Desire” closes the nine-track album with a feeling of resignation that could only be afforded at a time of weariness and fear: “Don’t hold too long / Or think you feign insane for sane’s sake / Don’t break for song / Don’t break your name.” It is just over five and a half minutes, but it really should go on forever.
Defined by a more mature approach to songwriting and a greater attention paid to structuring, Time Skiffs feels like the culmination of all the sounds and styles that Animal Collective has explored over the years. There is a lot going on and it can be a lot to take in, but for the most part, the instrumentation works in tandem rather than in competition. It is certainly not a straightforward album by most artists’ standards, this is Animal Collective after all, but they still do what they have always done best; striking the right balance between atmosphere and melody, but also distancing themselves from out of date exotica with a wink.
Though the band have sacrificed quite a bit of spontaneity in order to create something cohesive, shifting to a mellower style might just be the most unpredictable move the quartet could have ever made. Regardless, those looking to jump in (or jump back in) will not be disappointed with what they will find.