September 30, 2023

Animal Collective's second album in a year and a half, Isn't It Now?, proves the group is in top neopsychedelic form

Animal Collective - Isn't It Now? Review

Animal Collective - Isn’t It Now? Album Review

Animal Collective, a band formed from a small group of childhood friends, are a class all their own. Whether you love them or hate them, there can be no in between. This is how deeply committed they are to their songs. From their rather small and humble beginnings making music from their debut Spirit They've Gone, Spirit They've Vanished, the playful melodies were always there, either prominent or buried under their experimental avant-garde well of sounds. This continued into more of the former or the latter on subsequent albums such as Danse Manatee, Campfire Songs, and Here Comes The Indian (later titled Ark). After this period, their freak-folk, psychedelic pop interplay really came into focus with their stellar run of Sung Tongs, Feels, Strawberry Jam, and their chart-topping breakthrough Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2009. Animal Collective have largely kept the magic alive with each follow-up release, directing their own feature length video album Oddsac, and releasing the trippy Centipede Hertz, and then the refined psych-pop Painting With in 2016. Their last two albums in just over a year and a half, Time Skiffs in 2022 and Isn't It Now? really pull it all together. There has never been a stronger affirmation: that one of the most unique and utterly uncompromising psychedelic bands of this century are not going anywhere.   

As opposed to the individual song-focused Time Skiffs, Isn't It Now? seems more concerned with the overall journey, and it shows since this was formed over the course of live sessions and concert performances with a focus on improvisation. Isn't It Now?'s runtime is an epic 64 minutes, making it the longest Animal Collective LP in their amorphous career, mostly due to the inclusion of their longest song, Defeat (just shy of 22 minutes), dropped right in the middle of the tracklist. Almost every song has a noticeable progressive element, linking them thematically and working like a buildup or a come down from the main attraction: Defeat. This is yet another Animal Collective LP worth getting lost in.

From the moment the opening dialogue hits listeners' ears alongside the peepers of the night, "He climbs out of the words," sets the stage and the place for the Collective's first single Soul Capturer, which deals with that which is just outside of our reach, but enchants us nonetheless. The trickster Soul Capturer teases us, like moths to a light. "Your life is a ring around its finger, Lets you linger in the light," and "Soul Capturer feeds off your dreaming," shows that with whatever dreams people strive to reach, some forms of achievement or enlightenment are always out of reach. "Ooh, don't tempt me," the group sings in the bridge section, before the song builds into a sonic and psychedelic roar. Animal Collective are well known for their album openers, and Soul Capturer refuses to live that down. 

Much of the album departs from Soul Capturer, but in a pretty impressive way. Genie’s Open takes the opportunity to build with classic psych-rock instrumentation and simultaneously feels classical and modern; playful synths arpeggiate and repeat, fortifying listeners’ expectations that this song will eventually unfurl in an epic fashion. Panda Bear and Avey Tare’s backing vocals sound like waves lapping the song, much like how the group uses their voices as instruments themselves. Their words, “We’ll drift on through the night, Until we find the sea, Sea of light,” thematically fully embodies Genie’s Open. Before long the song changes again without warning, and the rhythm picks up to a traditional rock tempo while the group chants incessantly “Sea of light”. Animal Collective, more than any other musical act, are able to capture the giddy emotions of excitement that we all may feel in moments of discovery or clarity, and their perpetual distillation of childlike wonder is best captured here. 

As the album continues, this “expect the unexpected” feeling that comes with anything Animal Collective releases truly makes for aural delights and rewards fans upon repeated listens. When first listening to Magicians from Baltimore, for example, I was struck by how far they were willing to go in an age of immediate gratification and attention at an all-time deficit. They want the world to know they are not going to change for it; rather, they’ll change on their own terms. This track opens with what can only be described as a full-length musical trip. Animal Collective always bring it when it comes to immersive soundscapes, and this 9 and half minute slow-jam is no exception. Avey opens with his moody invitation, "Call me when you, Get back to Baltimore," to sounds of wary synths and wind chimes, but warns of trouble, "It might seem things are fine, but trouble takes its own time, and sometimes people too," as the snare drum tugs and pulls between his lines, hanging on his every word. It's a call and response between man and ethereal dreamscape, and Magicians eventually kicks off into a piano-led jam with softly piercing guitar chords, all smoothly coalescing as Avey sings of the endlessness of our inner selves, "There is a dream land many miles inside me, and I go there when I can, many miles haunting me."

Although these past couple of tracks play with their runtimes and slowly grow into blooming psych-rock anthems, nothing can prepare listeners for the group's longest song to date, Defeat. Clocking in at just under 22 minutes, Defeat flows like an avant-garde symphony, steady and calm at first, while Avey croons, "Panicked, seeking solitude, Serpents circle in the fountain, Thoughts of thee decaying fast, I awake to healthy roses." The lyrics take the form of these vivid images, as they are both beautiful and at the same time unsettling or dark. Violence, death, love's bruises, loneliness, and the passage of time all take turns all whilst a church-like organ reverberates. Avey's aching voice and Deakin and Panda's backing vocals call for strength, "Just grab something, take hold, The only thing to hold, Stay grounded like the spruce." This takes 9 minutes before the next movement takes its place, and it runs at a relatively brisk pace, "Crawling from the serpent in the water, The mirror, the what-have-we-become," a brief moment of self-reflection in the turmoil. After this short-lived moment, Animal Collective move toward an even more cathartic release, singing of coming of age and "Praise for the underdog," and it begins to feel like this song is the band's self-portrait or magnum opus. The end result feels pure and sacred, mostly because Animal Collective know all too well how to make their songs cry along with them as they belt out harmonies that can make your hairs stand on end. The last two movements bring Defeat in for a soft, extended landing, with the finale, "Isn't it now? Defeat! Oh no, not now," possibly suggesting that the band has seen the end in sight at one point or another, but rather than submit to Defeat, they would rather defer the inevitable. This could also go for anyone who feels vulnerable or overwhelmed by life's circumstances. This song takes patience and understanding, but there's no doubt or mystery that it is one of their crowning achievements. 

The remaining four tracks of the album all soften the blow of Defeat but also sport traditional runtimes, making them race by when compared to the first side of the album. Gem & I has a playful vibe, as Panda Bear references cracking open another beer and "another tip to the golden years." It is fun and care-free. Stride Rite is a stunner of a song, with Deakin taking lead this time, "Here once again I lie beside you, Staring through your open heart, Explaining what I'm not." It is an aching bittersweet song about letting go. "Lost one to cancer, Two to sorrow, Three by losing patience, With the people who we are, Let us tend what's not grown, nothing's wrong, let it go." Overall, these guys know the interpersonal conflicts that we all feel and how even in moments of sorrow there can be growth. "Just take a stride," Deakin sings, "Might even have to climb, Above the walls inside, Look to teachings you'll find everywhere, From your lover's eyes, To the loss that makes you cry." The last two tracks feel a little bit off-putting after everything that's come before it, but still leave their mark. All The Clubs Are Broken is like a nursery rhyme canon, repeating as Avey and co. sing "Everyone's a 9 to 5," and "Living in a world of trials." It is the shortest track, and possibly could have been omitted, but it makes its statement short and sweet before the Beach Boys' SMiLE-esque finale, King's Walk. Avey, Panda, and Deakin harmonize and echo into the stratosphere as Geologist quietly builds the soundscape around them. They let listeners off with the final words, "This old world is, Almost getting cooked, This old world is, Tougher than it looks." 

In a way, Isn’t It Now? is a very mature and grown up Animal Collective album; a love letter to longtime fans who have stuck with them through most of their storied career. Isn’t It Now? captures best the collaborative spirit of Animal Collective, and it is an utter joy to have albums put out by all four band members; Deakin's traditional-sounding, floaty songs Royal and Desire (from Time Skiffs) and Stride Rite both prove how far he has come with his voice and give each release a welcome respite from the otherwise trippy sound experiments present everywhere else. And with Geologist synthesizing aural treats, and Panda Bear and Avey Tare trading lead, Isn't It Now? is the latest example of how good and cohesive Animal Collective can be. To answer their question: Yes, it is now. 

Isn't It Now? - 8.5/10

Recommended Tracks: Soul Capturer, Magicians from Baltimore, Stride Rite