For a band, having created a masterpiece is something of a double-edged sword. Animal Collective struck creative gold with 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, and everything they’ve done since then has been coloured by the expectations it created. It felt like the logical endpoint of the trajectory the band had been on for a decade, and My Girls was their first mainstream hit, turning them into a sought-after live act. But where can a band go after hitting such heights? Can they just continue making the music that comes naturally? Painting With suggests that perhaps they can’t.
2012’s Centipede Hz was a very deliberate response to the polished pop flavour of Merriweather Post Pavilion. It was fashioned as a psychedelic garage album, with every instrument drenched in various effects, and every sonic space filled, to the point of overwhelming the listener, which is something Painting With suffers from as well. In the lead up to the release, the band talked about wanting to make a simpler, more immediate record. They have succeeded in that sense, as their trademark sequences of drone and experimentation are gone, along with the heavy reverb usually deployed on their work.
However, removing the reverb has a negative effect on the sound of the album. Songs that could have sounded otherworldly and magnificent simply sound like a collection of squelches and very corporeal percussion. The piano and flute on Lying in the Grass sound weak, distracting from the song’s energetic drums. Modular synthesisers were used heavily in the recording, and they show up best on The Burglars. As Avey Tare’s quickly spoken vocals race across the mix, waves of distorted synth build to invigorating climax.
Melodically, the band’s bizarre, Beach Boys-on-crack harmonies are as charming as ever, and always manage to anchor the songs when the instrumentation gets out of control. Unfortunately, because of the density of said instrumentation, the vocals feel like they’re unable to breathe, as there is rarely any unfilled space in a song. In lead single FloriDada, the catchy melody is overwhelmed by the various noises going off around it. The individual sounds themselves are interesting (although the “boing” effects wear thin), but they’re packed into the song so tightly that they can’t stand out.
The songs are all catchy, and the structure shows the advances the band members have made in their solo work (Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper attempts a similar sound, to greater success), so the confused instrumentation doesn’t entirely derail them. However, the lack of sonic space, and the banality of many of the sounds themselves, give the impression the band is trying too hard to impress. It creates the feeling of a mad carnival ride, or a sonic toy box. It works in small doses, but over the course of the album, it’s exhausting.