For nearly as long as Animal Collective have been a band, they have reserved some of their best material for follow-up EPs. They may have originated as leftovers, but each stands on its own as a body of work. Isn’t It Now? is a full-length—in fact, at 65 minutes, it’s the longest album they’ve ever made—but it seems of a piece with those compact and giftlike interstitial releases. It arrives a year and a half after the late-career triumph Time Skiffs and features material from the same batch of songs, composed just before the pandemic, that populated that record. Two decades into a career full of left turns, it is perhaps the Animal Collective album that sounds the most like the one before it. But if anyone has earned the right to settle into a particular lane for a while, it’s Animal Collective. Isn’t It Now? demonstrates that they needn’t constantly reinvent themselves in order to make deep and rewarding music.
On Isn’t It Now?, as on Time Skiffs, Animal Collective present themselves as something like a rock band. There are guitars, electric bass, and a full drum kit, rather than a ragtag assemblage of floor toms and sampler pads. For the first time since Feels or so, piano plays a central role, and not a piano that’s been distorted beyond recognition or looped infinitely through a delay pedal, but a regular old piano. The songs have adult concerns: “Defeat” and “Stride Rite” are odes to acceptance and perseverance; “Gem & I” namechecks simple pleasures like seeing the sun and cracking another beer; “Magicians From Baltimore” is about a hometown you love but had to leave. Accordingly, the band has toned down its most antic musical impulses. No screams, no sudden explosions of noise. The crescendos, when they happen, are subtle and patient. The tempos, like the volume level, are easygoing.
Within that limited dynamic range, Animal Collective remain a spectacularly creative band. This mellower zone suits them: On albums like Centipede Hz and Painting With, the overstimulation that characterized their groundbreaking earlier work was showing signs of wear; in this most recent period, it’s as if they’d challenged themselves to reach listeners without relying on that playbook. Sometimes, that means making use of idioms outside the insular Animal Collective world. “Stride Rite,” for instance, is a contender for the most straight-up normal song in their catalog. Elegant and candlelit, featuring a rare Deakin lead vocal, it reminds me of something you’d hear on a singer-songwriter album from the twilight of the hippie era, where the protagonist is trying to piece together a meaningful story about what’s next after the utopian dream has fizzled out. “Let’s invite all the songs that we wrote so we’d know/And let them go,” he sings, with a melodic leap at the end that sounds like some combination of regret and hopeful anticipation. Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s songs tend to be so wrapped up in their respective idiosyncrasies as writers and singers that it’s difficult to imagine other people delivering them convincingly. If Deakin’s sensibility is a little more traditional, it’s also a little more universal: “Stride Rite” feels like it could belong to anyone, including you.
But Isn’t It Now? also retains the band’s knack for defamiliarizing their influences, in the same way that Sung Tongs could make you feel like you were hearing a guy strumming an acoustic guitar for the first time in your life. “Gem & I” has a rhythmic basis in Jamaican music, a longstanding area of interest for the band, and perhaps some inspiration from contemporary Top 40 in a structure that unfolds as a series of ever-escalating hooks. Avey Tare’s backing vocals and a massive synth bassline both stab crosswise against Panda Bear’s lead vocal in a manner that’s so satisfying that it’s easy to overlook how unusual it is. The song rivals anything on Merriweather Post Pavilion in its combination of sonic inventiveness and pop appeal. The high point of the nine-minute “Magicians From Baltimore” comes when Deakin plays a piano riff like a looped fragment of a Scott Joplin rag while Panda Bear accompanies him with a variation of the Purdie shuffle. In any other indie-rock band’s hands, this would be a recipe for horrible fake jazz. By committing to the strict repetition of this single idea—and heroically resisting the temptation to noodle or show off—Animal Collective make it ecstatic and uncanny.
“Magicians From Baltimore” isn’t the longest song on Isn’t It Now?; that designation belongs to the 22-minute “Defeat.” It has a curious structure for an epic: halfway between an atmosphere to explore and a narrative to follow. A climactic upbeat section in the middle is almost perversely brief compared to the rest of the parts, which are uniformly slow, sparse, and drifting. The song both challenges and rewards your patience; it’s just that most of its payoffs are extremely subtle. The most moving details are in the margins: a tapped cymbal, a quietly churning violin figure, a scraping sound like a pick against the low strings of a guitar. It’s an audacious move to stick something like this right in the middle of Isn’t It Now?, an album otherwise filled with immediate and obvious pleasures. Which is to say it’s typical for a band that has never tempered its own eccentricity in favor of wider appeal.
One part of Animal Collective’s early mystique lay in a certain amateurism, which I don’t mean pejoratively, but only as a way of describing their apparently innocent disregard for the way other people played their instruments or put songs together. Through some mix of deliberate cultivation and genuine outsiderness, they made you feel like they could only make the strange music they were making. This most recent period involves a certain demystification on that front, by showing just how proficient they are with more commonly legible forms of musical technique. The rhythm section, in particular, finds deeper and funkier pockets in the songs of Isn’t It Now? than we have any right to expect from the guys who made Danse Manatee.
But they’re still contorting and combining these methods in ways that no other band could pull off. Take “Genie’s Open,” which at first is reminiscent of the proggy Canterbury bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s—psychedelic in the sense of fungal overgrowth rather than good vibes and tie-dye, with a series of dank minor-key harmonies that seem to twist in on themselves as the song progresses. Then, on a dime, they switch to an airy two-chord vamp so simple they could play it in their sleep, ornamenting it with the sort of cascading vocal layers that have provided connective tissue for almost all of their otherwise divergent work. Even the sound of Animal Collective themselves, at this point, is an idiom with diffusely observable parameters, attempted but never paralleled by the legions of bands that arose to imitate them at their peak of popularity. This moment is the purest expression of that Animal Collective house style on Isn’t It Now?, and it’s also one of the album’s most thrilling highs. If they’ve stopped putting so much emphasis on reinvention from album to album, maybe it’s because they’re still so good at being themselves.
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