Painting With marks Animal Collective’s tenth studio album effort, and, as is to be expected, wastes no time in throwing the listener into its pool of vocal and sample mayhem. For over a decade Animal Collective have been considered as being at the height of their psychedelic style, repeatedly treating their fans to album after album of increasingly ethereal, inaccessible hits, but Painting With has already been touted as a return to a more earthy, human sound. There is a certain ritual that surrounds fully listening to an Animal Collective Album, and Painting With is no exception; this record demands careful and concentrated listening. With a release as musically complex as this, it’s easy to listen once and find something, only to listen again to pick out what feels like thousands of new distinct sounds.
FloriDada is the first track on the album, beginning abruptly with a distinct ringing synth, soon joined by the pacing drums in a pairing that has become emblematic of Animal Collective’s sound. Vocalists Avey Tare and Panda sing together in disorientating harmony, alternating between each word or in some cases, between each syllable, never allowing the listener time to catch their breath as the electronic sounds bound away relentlessly. If their chaotic sound weren’t enough, the Dada reference in the track’s title, repeated constantly throughout the chorus, reminds us that this record will push away from the logical sounds of recent releases and step out even further into the experimental.
Second track Hocus Pocus continues the surreal feel with a sound bite sample of a traffic report detailing that there are “no dinosaurs to worry about”, creating a strangely distorted yet cinematic feel. The song charges with the same persistent march as the first track, but has a deeper, earthier feel, even with the electric sounds soaring over the top. Lying In The Grass could be considered a lowlight of the first half of the album – not that it is inferior to the other tracks but rather it is, for Animal Collective, relatively low key. With recognisable piano lines and brass notes, underneath the usual frenetic synth notes, a jazz influence seems to peek through, providing a pleasing contrast to the relentlessly electronic sounds that dominate the album.
Lyrically, Animal Collective operate on similar lines to their previous albums. Sung at such a pace and skewed to such distortion, they are often hard to pick out, but when they can be focused on they reveal phrases that seem at once simple and childlike but also curious and observant. “When I was young we used to put alarms on our door and screens like a burglar net / Now that I’m older I’m sure that’s absurd that’s the word for the man who collects who’s he stealing from next” chant Avey and Panda in Burglars, moving their way through staccato words at disorientating pace. Lyrically, Animal Collective seem to be extremely self-aware, constructing lines and pulling them apart immediately after, playing with images and the sounds of the words themselves to create the jumpy, aggressive chants. There is no easy way into the sentiment of this album, but perhaps that doesn’t matter, and perhaps, is exactly the point. Painting With seems to raise more questions about artistic process and intention than it does reveal anything about the artist’s stories or emotions – pulling directly away from the trajectory of most mainstream album efforts. It could be argued that Painting With is clinical – so abstract that it can’t connect with its audience, but Animal Collective have in fact developed a cult following over the past fifteen years, suggesting that there is something in this abstract, difficult work that appeals to listeners tired of linear, conventional songs.
Though this self-awareness (along with the questions it inspires) is important, it can’t be ignored that Painting With is often just downright difficult to listen to, and by Summing The Wretch the onslaught of constant noise, broken only by fleeting sound bites is exhausting. Each individual song has an undeniable energy to it and with close listening there is differentiation to be found, but this isn’t without effort and it could easily be argued that Painting With is, quite simply, monotonous. By trying so hard to break away from a cohesive song structure it alienates the listener to the point of apathy; regardless of the artistic intent or philosophical motivation, there’s no denying that the album is ugly. Of course, there are moments of brilliance, in fact, the whole thing in some way is brilliant: the complexity of its construction, the contrasting innocence and insightfulness of the lyrics, the mastery of what sounds like, at times, an electronic orchestra. However, brilliant does not equate to beautiful, and this album is a piece of work that is incredibly difficult to really enjoy on the simplest levels of listening.
Final track Recycling is one of the more interesting tracks on the album, beginning as a thumping and almost mechanical set of instrumentation, then drifting almost into the other-worldly vocals present on previous albums such as Merriwether Post Pavilion and finally dwindling out with a childlike electronic/percussion piece that ends alarmingly abruptly. As a final track, it’s one that seems to pack a lot of promise, only to end in disappointment. Of course, that’s probably the way Animal Collective intended, to leave the listener unresolved and reeling at the musical battering ram that is Painting With. The whole album is near incomprehensible, but maybe that’s okay. If it has any point at all, Painting With is an album that seeks to get rid of “the point”, and just revel in sound itself.