Animal Collective has taken a curious and mostly accidental journey from the New York avant-noise scene to the makeshift mainstream of critics' lists, blog rolls, and podcasts. Last year's Sung Tongs represented a startling progression away from abstract soundscapes toward actual songs, even though few would confuse Animal Collective's multi-part symphonic movements with straight-up pop. It's more a kind of effortless operetta, as bandleaders Avey Tare and Panda Bear bounce odd phrases off each other and off their polyrhythmic backdrop, shifting between parts with little overt fanfare.
Animal Collective's new album, Feels, is at its most dazzling up top, with songs like "Did You See The Words" and "Grass," which interlock short melodic phrases and build to miniature climaxes that themselves build to larger climaxes. The initial songs have a carnival atmosphere, goaded along by the barker-like vocals and the bustling instrumentation. It's the sound of something happening. The hubbub fades gradually, starting with the droning, fluttering third song, "Flesh Canoe," and its more pummeling cousin "The Purple Bottle." By the time Feels hits the extended-length late-album songs "Banshee Beat" and "Daffy Duck," clatter has given way to pulse and hum, as Animal Collective counts on the album's early momentum to carry listeners through songs that are more formless and indulgent.
The strategy works. Feels dissolves naturally from hedonism to spirituality, following an intuitive line that shouldn't be too hard for even the most traditionalist rock fan to trace. The record ends with the transcendent "Turn Into Something," which shakes off the mesmerizing moods of the preceding songs and spirals up into the clouds. It's a fitting end for a carefully sequenced, fully imagined albumone that's designed to be consumed by people wearing headphones and staring into space.