image courtesy Domino Records

Animal Collective and the death of indie rock

The highly regarded “Merriweather Post Pavilion” came during a critical time for indie rock, and in some ways, heralded its death.

It moves. Stare at the album art for Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion” long enough and the intricately-placed green ovals will start to oscillate in waves, giving the impression of a fluttering sheet, backdropped with a grainy image of a nebula. This effect is easily explained as a simple illusion, a trick played on the eyes, but the legacy of the record — and the record itself — is more complex. To put it simply, it’s an album that many people love very much, and to which there hasn’t been a widespread, convincing contender in the decade since its release.

Animal Collective’s ninth album, “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” turned 10 years old last Sunday. Released Jan. 6, 2009, the album was met with universally positive reviews from critics and fans alike, specifically receiving a 9.6 from Pitchfork and being selected as its 2009 Album of the Year against a field that included Grizzly Bear’s “Veckatimest” and Dirty Projectors’s “Bitte Orca,” so the competition was anything but stale. Pitchfork’s Album of the Year was an honor received by Fleet Foxes the year prior for their self-titled album and “Sun Giant” EP bundle, and by Kanye West the next year for “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” (and most recently by Mitski for “Be the Cowboy”), to give the accolade a bit of context.

On the topic of that imperfect little 9.6: Mark Richardson, who wrote the original Pitchfork review of the record, revealed in a 2012 post on his personal blog, “We thought about giving it a 10 but decided against it (Pitchfork hadn’t given one in a long time),” though the aforementioned Kanye West record would go on to receive their first 10 in eight years (and their last 10 since).

Hey, is this article about “Merriweather Post Pavilion” or Pitchfork? Well, both, but it’s hardly a look back at the content of “Merriweather Post Pavilion.” It’s more of a look at its legacy. Pitchfork is far from the only music-reviewing platform, and a sizable population of music-lovers would contest their seemingly hallowed presence among music journalism in the first place. It seems that the comments of every post I see from Pitchfork on any social medium are just riddled with hatred and proclamations of “Pitchfork? More like Shitfork” (all right, I made that one up) and other, meaner things. What brings the website to such infamy among these circles?

While, again, not the only music-reviewing platform, Pitchfork’s online reviews benefit from an intelligent layout, or at least they have in the last decade. The album’s rating is given in a large typeface at the top of the page adjacent to the album art, sometimes bolstered with other identifiers like “Best New Music” and the like. A lightly-shaded deck just under the rating gives a concise and convincing summary of the review in one or two sentences. This makes it easy not only to immediately grasp Pitchfork’s opinion, but to understand it with a bit of context without even having to read the article (though it’s probably a good idea to read it). One may find themselves clicking from review to review on the site, soaking in the ratings and the takes without even reading the articles themselves.

Generally good opinions, a legacy spanning 20 years and an annual music festival have also helped Pitchfork with ingraining themselves in the collective music journalism consciousness.

While I disagree with a fair bit of their ratings, I tend to like Pitchfork. Seeing as how I love Animal Collective (excuse me, I just dropped my bias), their recent article on the legacy of “Merriweather Post Pavilion” was a nice surprise.

Pitchfork correspondent Larry Fitzmaurice constructs a humorous and well-thought-out retrospective on Animal Collective and their influence in the last decade — or more specifically, a sort of influence vacuum — in his piece that questions why “Merriweather Post Pavilion” didn’t succeed in “redefining indie music” when all the pieces were seemingly there. I won’t spend too long reconstructing Fitzmaurice’s argument, but it revolves around an assertion that Animal Collective in 2009 (and other successful indie rock bands of the time, like Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors) never fully realized the potential revealed by their magnum opus and has instead veered erratically in both sound and quality since 2009. He ends his study with the line, “Animal Collective chose not to finish the conversation their most successful album started, and no one else even dared to try.”

The latter half of this statement merits a response. Fitzmaurice claims that “Merriweather” had a questionable amount of influence on indie as a whole, though he makes this claim without criticism, suggesting instead that the album was simply “unbeatable.” High praise from a music journalist, but praise that comes from a confusing perspective on art as a whole. Perhaps some may believe that nothing could ever top novels like “Ulysses” or “Finnegan’s Wake” in terms of ambition, or epics like the “Iliad” or “Odyssey” in general scale, but the immense grandeur of these works hasn’t stopped generations-worth of hopeful artists (imitators or otherwise) from drawing inspiration and advancing the arts in myriad directions. Given the subjective nature of art, one can maintain that the narratives truly are unbeatable, while yet another can believe that they’ve all been topped and that the topping will continue ad infinitum. There’s no objective, allegedly right answer on this topic.

An amateur musician somewhat unconfident in their musical abilities might be a little intimidated by “Merriweather,” but one ambitious enough could certainly imitate it in eye-opening ways, and there has never been a shortage of individuals who harbor such ambition. Indeed, “Merriweather” has had a larger influence than Fitzmaurice gives it credit, though I’ll get to that in a moment.

Another reason Fitzmaurice suggests may be the cause for the record’s lack of influence (as he sees it) is simply that a new “cultural focus” began to occupy the indie zeitgeist, and it doesn’t take a music historian to know that this focus was intensely based in electronic instrumentation and influences that stemmed from hip hop and R&B. That Fitzmaurice hasn’t considered “Merriweather’s” influence on electronic music is interesting, seeing as “Merriweather” is an electronic album at heart and that Animal Collective has been primarily electronic since 2009.

One need only listen to the prequel to “Merriweather,” 2007’s “Strawberry Jam,” to understand the change the band underwent. “Strawberry Jam” is marked with far more physical instrumentation: guitars and drum kits and keyboards that are, to be sure, present nonetheless in “Merriweather Post Pavilion” but in a warped and depressed form. Animal Collective transformed into an electronic band, or at least one with extreme electronic influences and qualities.

Indie rock is dead, and it died slowly. In fact, scratch that — it may still be dying. With some artists, it grasps hold of life wonderfully and meaningfully (Mitski), but on most other fronts, it is fading away, just as the guitar is. “Indie” nowadays refers to music more electronic in nature, and ironically, more indie (i.e., musicians releasing without labels). With SoundCloud and Bandcamp making distribution easy, and with YouTube tutorials and digital audio workstations (DAWs) making electronic music a manageable DIY project without the clutter of a full band or physical instruments to record dynamically, indie has more or less become bedroom pop. This includes acts like Snail Mail or Clairo, who utilize their lo-fi charm and incessant degree of reverb to mask the cracks in their homemade armor.

What an assertion I’ve made. Here, I must concede that my take on the evolution of music is built on conjecture. I’m not a music historian or even a music journalist like Larry Fitzmaurice, whose job it is to study and explore trends in the evolution of music. All the same, I find his opinion that “Merriweather” didn’t inspire too much influence just downright shocking.

“Merriweather Post Pavilion,” in conjunction with the birth of the “chillwave” genre incipient in Panda Bear’s (the drummer and co-songwriter of Animal Collective) 2007 solo album “Person Pitch,” delivered techniques, soundscapes and perspectives on music — all primarily from a sonic and electronic point of view — that had previously been unexplored. 2007 is the same year that British producer Burial’s groundbreaking “Untrue” was released, so even the more by-the-books, fully-electronic and sample-based music was undergoing a metamorphosis. Animal Collective (and Panda Bear, both as an individual and as part of the group) catalyzed a lighter version of electronic music, something of a fusion: a mixture of the physical with the digital. Not a new concept but one that finally took hold in the indie scene at around that time. If this doesn’t properly illustrate the direction in which indie began to gravitate in the 2010s (and in which it is still headed; electronic influence is everywhere), I don’t know what does.

“Merriweather Post Pavilion” was the nail in the coffin for guitar-based indie music, and its influence is massive. It is Animal Collective’s most popular and most-listened-to record; everyone heard it. Music fans and internet forums were clamoring for a leak that finally came just a few weeks before the record’s release, and no one went home disappointed. Everyone wanted to create that simple and perfect fusion of ethereal background and cadence-driven pop foreground that came in “My Girls,” the band’s most enduring single and the flagship track of “Merriweather Post Pavilion.” By and by, groups gradually began to successfully mimic the group, both in the aforementioned, homegrown bedroom-pop groups and in larger groups, like Beach House, who grew tangentially with Animal Collective (and from the same city of Baltimore).

To look back on “Merriweather Post Pavilion” and remember how great it was, 10 years later, while also wondering why it didn’t influence the music scene as we see it today, is to publicly engage in cognitive dissonance. You can’t have one without the other. “Merriweather Post Pavilion” lives on; it can’t die. Just look at it: it’s still moving.

Post Author: Ethan Veenker