Stay Grounded Like The Spruce
A Review of Animal Collective’s Isn’t It Now?
There aren’t many bands who could get away with releasing a 22-minute-long meditation on ageing and mortality as a single, but at this point in their career, Animal Collective’s fanbase hardly batted an eye. Their single “Defeat” doesn’t even come close to being the strangest thing put out by the Baltimore band across their 25-year career, as they’ve experimented with everything from acoustic guitars to sampling to straight-up white noise. Having just come off of last year’s Time Skiffs, a great album which was perhaps the most straightforwardly rock-oriented of their career, there was plenty of buzz about this new release.
The announcement of Isn’t It Now came soon after “Defeat,” and when you’ve heard the album, it makes perfect sense that it’s this song they led with. The sprawling suite (or ‘not-suite,’ as the song was subtitled in its early live versions) is sequenced right in the middle of the record, with four songs on either side of it. At sixty-four minutes, this is the longest project the band has ever put out, and “Defeat” is at its heart. The song begins with shimmering, bucolic synths, and Avey Tare’s surreal lyrics, which outline a theme of coping with the passage of time. Around the nine-minute mark, the song picks up into an upbeat psych-rock jam, but then it drops into a darker passage for the rest of the song, as Avey looks back on his ‘coming of age.’ In the closing section’s refrain, which gives the album its title, he asks, “Isn’t it now? Defeat.” Panda Bear responds quietly, plaintively, “Oh, no, not now,” trying to stave off the loss of that past. Thematically and sonically, “Defeat” sets the tone for the album. It’s the centrepiece of its sonic palette and its thoughtful, mature lyrical content, although it’s the weirdest thing here by a long shot.
Isn’t It Now? is a sister record/release to the aforementioned 2022 album, Time Skiffs. The material on both of the albums was all written at the same time, during a band trip to a cabin in Tennessee in 2019. The songs on Time Skiffs were the ones that the band felt could be effectively recorded remotely, while COVID lockdowns still prevented them from working on the album together as a band. The longer, more texture-based tracks had to be left for this album, and so of course, Isn’t It Now? feels a bit more “lowkey” than its predecessor, but they’re really two sides of the same coin. This new era of Animal Collective is somewhat more conventional than much of their back catalogue, not featuring screams or noise or strange samples. The characteristic sounds of this band— those being their creative electronic and synthesiser sounds and their harmonised vocals— are still here, but they work in service of identifiable psychedelic pop songs. One might think that this move/direction entails a lack of creative energy, but that’s not the case here, as the songwriting is every bit as strong as it’s ever been. Running through some of the other highlights can give us an idea of the kind of writing that went into this release.
The inventive and barely two-minute-long “All the Clubs are Broken” has a funky rhythm and a repetitive, hook-based structure one might expect from dance-pop, but the melody is oddly mediaeval. “Gem and I” is a laid-back, sunny psych-rock track. It incorporates some dub-reggae influence in the bass and drums but manages to avoid feeling like a jarring detour from the rest of the tracks or falling into tasteless pastiche while doing it. Along with usual contributors Avey Tare and Panda Bear, we’re also treated to a song from Deakin, a band member who has often stayed on the sidelines of the group. Even though it has some odd electronic sounds and vocal harmonies to set it out as an Animal Collective track, “Stride Rite” is mainly a genuine ballad, highlighting Deakin’s vocals and piano. “King’s Walk” is the closer, and it ends things on a rather majestic note. Huge-sounding harmonies take up the vast majority of the focus, there being little other instrumentation beyond a subtle synth and a few subtle electronic sounds. It slowly builds up until the ending, where Avey sings the song’s climate-conscious lyrics in a croaklike low singing voice.
In the early years of Animal Collective’s career, growing older was a constant theme to their music, mostly focussed on growing out of childhood. Their utterly bizarre and unique debut album, Spirit They’re Gone Spirit They’ve Vanished, was more or less a concept album about the pains of leaving behind one’s childhood innocence. This theme carried through at least up to 2007’s Strawberry Jam, where songs like “For Reverend Green” dealt with the topic, but somewhat subsided after that. That same sense of nostalgia reemerges on Isn’t It Now. Now, though, the nostalgia is for young adulthood from the perspective of middle age. “Defeat” and “Stride Rite” mourn the losses which come with the passing of time. On “Magicians from Baltimore,” Avey Tare takes a sincere look back at his hometown, simultaneously missing it and believing that it was necessary to leave it behind. Though they don’t appear explicitly on every track, it appears that this is the kind of thinking that was underpinning the creation of both this album and Time Skiffs
Animal Collective’s two 2020s albums form a cohesive unit, which, if not quite as adventurous or left-field as their early work, is still great music in its own right. In this new phase of their evolution as a band, they’ve reinvented themselves as expert craftsmen of warm, memorable psych-pop songs, which combine traditional elements of the genre with their own distinctive trademarks.