(Modern) Classics Revisited: Animal Collective - 'Feels'

In 2005, Animal Collective released one of the defining artistic statements of the burgeoning wave of staunchly idiosyncratic, indie-mainstream crossovers (Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, Deerhunter) in Feels, as well as one of the defining albums of their career.

They may have more successful records (the sublime, humid electro-pop odyssey Merriweather Post Pavilion), and it is arguable they’ve released more singular artistic statements (their electro-acoustic lullaby Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished), but they never again reached this equilibrium of convention, invention and cultural relevancy.

Along with the freakier and folksier Sung Tongs that preceded it, Feels heralded in an unparalleled creative hot streak for Animal Collective. They released record after record during this period that remain envelope-pushing albums in underground music to this day, as well as producing some of the band’s most beloved and perhaps even (shock! horror!) most commercially viable music to date. During this period, the likely lads left their grubby, paint-dipped fingerprints across an entire cross-section of the underground music scene, from excitable indie-electronics with Strawberry Jam, to hearty, rustic folk on EP Prospect Hummer, made with freak folk matriarch Vashti Bunyan.

Image courtesy of Tom Andrew.

Arguably however, no release from this period had quite the impact on the respective scene of the sound it was interpolating as the mutant indie rock of Feels, which beautifully married the avant-garde approach of the band’s earlier records into the indie rock mainstream’s increasingly idiosyncratic sound and cosmopolitan influences. To record the album, Animal Collective regrouped and reconfigured in the image of the ‘traditional’ guitar rock band, albeit still somewhat twisted and stoned thanks to Geologist’s audio manipulation and their devotion to roleplaying as people who’ve never seen a guitar being played before. In doing so, they proved they could make a record just as resplendent, ornately arranged, drenched in sun-kissed Beach Boys harmonies, and full of Houndini-esqe perversions of traditional verse-chorus song structures as any Bitte Orca (Dirty Projectors) or Veckatimest (Grizzly Bear) before or since.

Feels is a fairytale, sexual awakening and tragedy rolled into one. It’s the Brothers Grimm via David Lynch. Little Red Riding Hood lost in a surrealist painting. It’s a universal truth whispered deathly quiet into your ear. A comfortable and frightening contradiction. Animal Collective have always existed within a world entirely their own; their music works both as a soothing salve for the mundanity of modern life, and also a comforting hand for those who spend large parts of their days dreaming, so you don’t dream alone. Here, all these prior attributes coalesce into a vivid, tangible fantasy world with its own unique language, where emotions are kept in big purple bottles and bees swarm out of lovers’ mouths. So well rendered, nostalgically familiar and homely is this place that they conjure, you’d be forgiven for never wanting to leave.

'Feels is a fairytale, sexual awakening and tragedy rolled into one. It’s the Brothers Grimm via David Lynch. Little Red Riding Hood lost in a surrealist painting'.

Generally speaking, the songs on Feels fall into two distinct camps: the relatively straightforward, propulsive rock-centric numbers, mostly loaded onto Side A, and the comparatively formless and swampy tracks focusing more on rich instrumental textures and gorgeous twilight ambience that pool across Side B. This Jekyll and Hyde approach pays off instantly and jubilantly on first listen, as the album’s two halves serve to consolidate one another. The more instantly gratifying first half tugs you down the rabbit hole of the album’s tenderly cosy wonderland with its inviting melodies and triumphantly lovestruck feels.

The latter half subsequently really lets the atmosphere build and the meditative repetition sink you deeper into their alluring landscape of delights. These delights come rapidly and rewardingly too, as both halves are bathed in sanguine string drones (the earthy cicada buzz that chirps throughout Did You See The Words); gigantic organic percussion (The Purple Bottle’s thundering drums that feel like someone throwing luggage at you); and twittering twilight guitars that buzz along at entirely their own pace, gently warping and twisting into unfamiliar but invariably pretty shapes and patterns (the syncopated backbone of stunning closer Turn Into Something). These guitars never bother to coalesce themselves into anything remotely resembling a ‘riff’ however – they’re still not fully sold on ‘songs’ yet.

As with the majority of Animal Collective releases, there is a clear MVP: Avey Tare in the case of Feels. He sings lead on every track here save (debatably) Loch Raven, and his yippy, intentionally blemished and amateurish vocals are what give the album its unique vibe, as his disarming authenticity gives the proceedings a childlike disposition. The Purple Bottle stands amongst the most jubilant and rapturous love songs in Animal Collective’s discography. This is in no small part a result of Avey’s nimble and uninhibited vocal performance, which transitions from hollered devotion to his muse to a sensually cooed chorus that comes abed a mattress of murmured harmonies and oddly percussive mouth sounds. Mind you, the thick driving groove and frantic droning guitar that pops and sparkles like summer night fireworks, as well as a healthy dosing of reverent hummed harmonies, also don’t hurt.

Elsewhere, Banshee Beat is yet another impeccable display of Tare’s vocal versatility as he imbues the ethereal guitar drone led intro with a sense of delicate otherworldly grief, bemoaning a failed relationship with surreal but strikingly sad imagery. As the song gradually builds momentum, Tare matches with a rising sense of desperation that can only be found in the death throes of a relationship, as exquisite harmonies tweet in and out the track and Tare’s melodies soar through the velvet black sky.

Despite its aforementioned reputation for being Animal Collective’s indie rock album, Feels also contains some of their strangest compositions. At first glance, the instrumental on Bees might seem rather amorphous, and that would be correct, but it’s also got an alien alluringness and spiritual quality that elevate it to one of their finest songs. Tare patiently croons surrealist lyrics where feelings come to him in swarms like bees ‘so violent’, while a prominent autoharp sample flows around the soundscape like a sentient pool of nectar. Golden harmonies and burbling streams of piano drift in and out of focus and maintain the songs hypnotic grace over its 5+ minute runtime. The song’s chord-less, cycling harmonics make it a bit reminiscent of the minimalist stylings of some of the more avant-garde 20th century classic composers (such as Reich), and the band manage something just as transportive and mind-bending with just 4 players (and change).

'Despite its aforementioned reputation for being Animal Collective’s indie rock album, Feels also contains some of their strangest compositions'.

Electronics play a minor but vital supporting role throughout the album. Grass might be one of the most plainly catchy and accessible songs here, with its easily digestible 3-minute runtime, sing (scream?) along chorus and up-tempo rock groove, but it’s the electronic flourishes that really consummate the spell. Just after the halfway mark, the celestial pianos begin to share space with twirling synths that seem to inflate this post-chorus section with enough wonder and mystery to fill the whole album. Each note glistens like dew but has just enough bite to add an undercurrent of darkness beneath the service in an impressively Lynchian maneuverer.

These electronic elements are taken to the forefront for the reflective Loch Raven, where they overtake the rumbling drums and gentle piano to buzz and shine across the entire track. There’s an astonishing tenderness to the initial lovely notes the synths play and a heavenly but equally eerie quality to the hissing drone each one leaves in its wake, like a the long slow death of a star. It presents the perfect pallet for the group to showcase some of their most idiosyncratic and heart-warming melodies on the entire record.

'The band are able to collide the most esoteric elements of their sound with some of their most earwormy melodies and ambitious song structures to date'.

Feels is the kind of record even great bands often grapple with conceiving over the course of their lifespans. Its dense and varied sonic rewards are as much cerebral – rewarded on repeated listening with modern classical levels of tonal experimentation and instrumental warping – as they are instantly pleasurable and demandingly hooky. The band are able to collide the most esoteric elements of their sound – from swampy humid soundscapes populated by buzzing insects and twilight drones – with some of their most earwormy melodies and ambitious song structures to date.

Each time I switch this record on, I’m floored by the intoxicating hazy world it tugs you into and the psychedelic landscapes existing within each song. If you haven’t heard this album and you enjoy the more esoteric offshoots of mid-late 2000’s (and you can look past some bold, deliberately uncurbed vocal acrobatics), then I implore you to give this record a shot.