Has there ever been a review of an Animal Collective record that didn’t include some variation of the phrase, “imbued with strange synth sounds”? The band has resisted easy categorization by following its muse from one unexpected set of sounds and samples to the next, unencumbered by the idea of what an Animal Collective album should be. Yes, the underlying knack for pop melodies, eclectic musical fusion, and sophisticated vocal harmonies runs through the band’s output like a lifeline—but always in service of the next ambitious sonic exploration.
But for maybe the first time with Time Skiffs, Animal Collective feels like it found a groove and stuck with it. Gone are the leaps from They Might Be Giants-esque electronic sass like “FloriDada” to the indie-pop bounce of “Golden Gal” found on the last record, 2016's Painting With. Absent, too, is the juddering shift from spacious beauty to strobing, anthemic bangers like “My Girls” that defined the group’s complex masterwork, Merriweather Post Pavilion. And the oft-overstuffed intensity of Centipede Hz? Nowhere to be found. The band is after something quite different, here.
That something is a unifying sonic style—exotica, the musical style of the ’50s and ’60s that filtered a variety of international influences, primarily from the Carribbean, Polynesia, and more. Animal Collective returns to that sound time and again on its 11th studio album, leaning away from both its more folk-influenced early work and the playful electronica of the past decade. No, what suffuses Time Skiffs is an organic sense of languid groove, delivered through often minimalist polyrhythms and understated arrangements—for Animal Collective, anyway, which is obviously grading on an unusual curve.
That greater sense of uniformity shouldn’t be interpreted as homogeneity, however. There’s no shying away from the group’s commitment to chasing any nifty melody down a rabbit hole of off-kilter change-ups, as demonstrated on single “Strung With Everything,” which leaps from sound-collage eeriness to raucous, call-and-response eruptions of revival-tent rock. The band has never sounded more like Phish—which becomes less of a backhanded compliment when you consider the Grateful Dead influences that have played a recurring role in Animal Collective interviews and live shows.
Perhaps emboldened by the strange palate cleanser of Tangerine Reef, Animal Collective’s abstract and somewhat alienating musical accompaniment to the aquatic undersea visuals of Australian filmmakers Coral Morphologic, the band lets Time Skiffs breathe. There’s no rushing to fill the space with sound, or to make abrupt 180-degree pivots mid-song; instead, the grooves and rhythmic patterns dictate the direction of the music, a process that results in a lot of repetition in the arrangements, though rarely to its detriment. This is a deeply cohesive album of songs that flow smoothly from one to the next. There’s nothing that stands out from the rest—no great zenith of songwriting—but there are no duds, either. It’s just… solid.
There are moments that come close to achieving a sort of transcendent catharsis, however. After beginning with a simple two-chord progression that segues into a loping drum pattern and skittering keys, the back half of “Prester John” finds the band’s harmony of voices uniting for an endlessly repeated phrase, powerful and moving. And the background ambient noises slowly rise to the forefront and swallow things up—a nicely symbolic representation of Animal Collective’s perennial fascination with how avant-garde sounds can transmute music.
And the album centerpiece, “Cherokee,” also creates beauty from simple oddities. The jazzy hi-hat minimalism of the beat lends an almost Paul Simon-esque sensibility to Avey Tare’s lower-register vocals. With a spare bass accompaniment and distant washes of fuzz rising and falling, it delivers a fully-formed version of the tiki-lounge exotica that permeates Time Skiffs, all while offering intriguing vocals about the confusion of consumer culture and its disjunction with those cultures that came before ours.
Honestly, this might be the closest Animal Collective will get to making a post-rock album. “We Go Back” could almost be mistaken for a Tortoise song in the early going, were it not for the band’s signature layered harmonies. And the tropicalia-infused “Car Keys” restrains the group’s playfulness with a lounge-lizard vibe, as Panda Bear’s vocals dance around Tare’s, the refrain of “How are we doin’ now?” doubling as a question for listeners seeking more art-damaged pop.
If the songs occasionally flow too freely into one another, the resulting synthesis of mood and tone makes for a singular musical document, one that always feels of a piece with itself. It slides from the languid avant-melodicism of “Passer-by” (summoning comparisons to similarly experimental pop acts like dEUS in the process) to the elegiac swoon of closer “Royal And Desire” without ever sounding like an engineer stopped the tape. Time Skiffs is a record meant to be played front to back; for those willing to ride the mellower waves, it’s a satisfying skiff, indeed.