In the world of alternative music, some albums are hyped to legendary statuses, some trashed and left for dead, and others just fade into obscurity. Armed with hindsight and an appreciation for all things indie, I revisit some of these albums to answer the simple yet important question: did it get what it deserved?
The Subject: In case you are unaware, this little group known as Animal Collective have been releasing LPs since 2000, and some of them are pretty good. In fact, some of these albums have gone on to be considered amongst the best pop albums ever crafted (Merriweather Post Pavilion). However, before this achievement, the musical collective released Danse Manatee, a 47-minute tirade of synths, child-like voices, and bricolage percussion. Ben Bollig of No Ripcord described the album as “often too difficult and willful”, while Pitchfork Media slammed the release as “a return to a more developmentally immature level of mental functioning” while giving the album a 3.9/10. Ultimately, the critical community generally panned the release, and the album became known amongst fans as the worst in the AnCo discography. So, I ask: is it really as bad as everyone says? Is there any redeeming quality to it? Did critics and fans get it wrong?
The Examination: My personal history with this album is very short; that is, I have never really listened to it in its entirety. In fact, the most exposure to it I have received stems from the incorporation of tracks “Essplode” and “Lablakely Dress” into live renditions of the group’s hit song “Fireworks”. This lack of interaction is no accident. No matter what critics or fans say, my favorite Animal Collective release is and will probably always be their debut album Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished. Spirit is a triumph in the sheer way liquid percussion, buzzing synths, white noise, and organic instrumentation combine to mix perfectly freak folk whimsy and avant-garde audacity. My intense love for Spirit, the seething hatred for Danse Manatee by almost everyone, and the fact that Danse was said to contain many of the same elements as Spirit really turned me off for fear of perverting one of my favorite albums ever. I guess you could say it was an instance of music criticism successfully flexing its muscle in the negative direction.
Personal sob stories aside, Danse Manatee starts off with the introductory title track (except in conventional English) whose bubbling, panging electronics can be taken as either a welcome to the album’s quirky world or as a dark foreshadowing of the crazy that is about to be experienced. “Penguin Penguin” explodes with Geologist’s screeching synths , Panda Bear’s spastic drumming, and Avey Tare’s fluttered chanting. All of these elements help create a sense of psychotic urgency that becomes somewhat of a recurring theme throughout the rest of the album. However, in the middle of this psychosis, “Essplode” stands out as the best possible combination of these elements, which results in brilliant pop song amongst a sea of experimental noise and unconventional song structures. “Meet the Light Child” is a 9-minute travelogue that starts with an elaboration on the same flurry of sound discussed before and eventually settles into a lullaby of jangly guitar and floating electronic droplets. “The Living Toys” employs metallic guitars (that seem like precursors to Here Comes the Indian) and high-pitched shimmering to create an ambient soundscape. “Lablakely Dress” has a similar melodic focus as “Essplode”, except Avey Tare’s vocals are processed to sound like Geologist’s buzzing synths. Finally, the album ends with “The Singing Box”, yet another exploratory track that combines negative space with telegraph-like electronics and Panda Bears jolty hi-hat doodles.
I suppose the best way to go about analyzing this album is from two angles: the psychedelic freak folk angle or the avant-garde experimental approach. As I’ve said before, Spirit succeeded in combining these two elements into one mind-numbing yet beautiful record. Danse is clearly attempting to find some combination of these two elements, however with much more of experimentation and a lot less of melodic folk. There is really little worth discussing when taking the album from the folk perspective. “Essplode” is the only redeeming aspect of the album from this angle because it actually tones down the clusterfuck and delivers memorable and catchy melody. Other than that, the rest of the album falls entirely short by burdening any semblance of tunefulness and folk rock exploration with painful electronics and batshit organization. From this perspective, it seems as if the group is actively avoiding any concept of conformity, and as a result created a bumbling mess. No, the freak folk angle is not very becoming for Danse.
However, I am convinced that Animal Collective intended for the album to be viewed from an avant-garde angle, so I will give this angle more of a fair shake. When I listen to anything that can be described as avant-garde, I judge it purely on my emotional response, and not other elements such as songwriting, influence, extent of experimentation, or what have you. This is just my opinion, but avant-garde so effectively avoids any definition or convention in its abstractness that the only way to constructively respond to it is through similar abstractness. And to me, emotions are probably the most abstract concepts that people have consistent and complete access to.
With that being said, Danse Manatee certainly has its moments of emotional manipulation. The back half of “Meet the Light Child” is chilling and disturbed in a quixotic and peaceful fashion. “Ahh Good Country” effectively transitions from stationary calmness to jubilance. “A Manatee Dance” feels almost nervous and foreboding. However, despite a handful of emotional moments, the album as a whole feels somewhat boring. To anyone unfamiliar with the sound of early Animal Collective or uninitiated to noise music, this album with scare the shit out of them. However, to those familiar with Spirit, the sheer shock value of Danse will be immediately lost, and what remains is a whole that is somewhat difficult to get through simply because it lacks eye-opening excitement. The album does a good job of creating a specific mood and keeping it, but this mood just becomes tiresome after the first 8-minute-or-so track.
While the folk aspect of this album is fruitless, the avant-garde angle is a little more enlightening. However, there is much more emotive avant-garde music in the world, and, as a result, Danse occupies an awkward middle ground between two conventions of music. It is neither a freak folk staple nor a must-have in the avant-garde universe, and because of this it is certainly the weakest Animal Collective album to date.
The Verdict: I did not feel “angered” by the album, nor do I think that it is an example of Peter-Pan syndrome in action. However, even in its psychosis, the album fails to exceed Spirit in excitement and novelty, and thus becomes a disappointing footnote in Animal Collective’s discography.