Detail of album art from the controversial "Tangerine Reef." courtesy Domino

Animal Collective’s “Tangerine Reef” defies review

The critical response to “Tangerine Reef” elicits a greater discussion on music criticism as a whole.

“Tangerine Reef,” Animal Collective’s 11th studio album, is unique in being the band’s first full-length release without the drumming and rhythmic sensibilities of founding member and mainstay Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear. This is an important window into how listeners have interpreted the record, a topic I’ll discuss later. This is also the first record to see the return of Josh Dibb, aka Deakin, to the collective, who has been absent since departing after 2012’s “Centipede Hz” to pursue a solo effort.

“Tangerine Reef” was released August 17, 2018 as an audiovisual album in collaboration with Coral Morphologic, a self-proclaimed “art-science duo” who frequently makes artistic films featuring coral reefs and is outspoken in their oceanic environmentalism. Animal Collective has collaborated with Coral Morphologic in the past before: once in 2011 when member Brian Weitz, aka Geologist, composed the soundtrack for their short film “Man O War,” and again last February when the band delivered a live soundtrack for “Coral Orgy” in Florida, a “collaborative site-specific performance celebrating the cosmic synchronicity of sex on the reef.”

“Tangerine Reef” was released to celebrate the 2018 International Year of the Reef. The visual accompaniment, a series of meticulously-filmed clips of beautiful coral reefs, is available to watch for free on Animal Collective’s website. This is actually not the band’s first foray into the visual album genre, the first being 2010’s “ODDSAC.” That film, directed by Danny Perez, differs from “Tangerine Reef” in its vague through-line of plot, its absurd and at times terrifying images and its far more eclectic musical style. One could write a book on “ODDSAC” if they took the time.

By the time this is published, “Tangerine Reef” will have been out for over three weeks, making this review a little less than timely. In truth, this article is intended more as a response to the manner of negative press “Tangerine Reef” is receiving rather than a full-hearted effort at reviewing the record, though I do want to briefly discuss its qualities.

“Tangerine Reef,” while a full-fledged studio album, feels less like a directed release and more like a project the band wanted to explore casually. Indeed, the record was born in the conditions following “Coral Orgy,” in which fans who couldn’t make the drive to Florida clamored for bootleg recordings of the performance, desperate to hear new material. This isn’t to say that Animal Collective altered their trajectory to bend to the needs of fans, but rather that they saw a desire from their fanbase and felt that they could deliver.

The record feels less “scripted” (I suspect much of it is improvised) and in any case features less of the aesthetic overhaul and marketing strategies employed before 2016’s “Painting With.” The new record did pump out one single, though, which came with a video (part of the visual album) originally exclusively available on Apple Music, a move that left many fans bewildered, myself included. Still, the album feels like more of an attempt to simply make some good music than write a complex record, and I don’t consider this a bad thing. It’s simply a thing.

One should consider this before listening to the album as an introduction to Animal Collective, and one should also consider the following: this is a difficult listen for the uninitiated. It’s not hardcore, or annoying, or loud, or jerky or any of those things. It’s just slow, methodical, an attempt at evoking the wispy but rooted movements of coral fronds in the ocean current. This is an atmospheric record, and as a result most of the songs start slow and end slow. They perhaps feature a few lines of vocals here and there from founding member David Portner, aka Avey Tare, but are otherwise devoid of anything that could be called song structure. There is no verse-chorus-bridge-chorus in this record. The songs begin; they flow; they end. It is an ambient record at heart.

There are, however, moments of excited rhythm, for example “Hip Sponge” in which Portner’s vocals rise and fall in the background as nearly the only moving part to the song. There’s also “Buffalo Tomato,” a song with a driving rhythm that can only be called such in relation to the rest of the sedentary record, for it’s nothing more than a repetitive ticking sound. I also felt that the beat in the end of “Airpipe (To A New Transition)” resembled that of a blacksmith hammering away at an anvil, and such a cadence was much welcome as I worked with the record playing in the background.

Which, I believe, is the way one can most effectively enjoy such a record: in the background. It’s difficult to review ambient music because it all works to the same end and is designed almost not to be focused upon. Of course, there is richness in “Tangerine Reef”; its ambience differs from that of, say, Boards of Canada, in that minimalism is traded for a substantial overlayering of elements so that the listener is struck at first with only a wall of sound that ebbs and flows, like a giant, grotesque being. If one desired, they could unpack a great many sounds and tones at a close listen. I don’t feel this is necessary for a great experience with the record, though.
It’s a good record at the end of the day. It’s relaxing, and its background stance is a welcome return-to-form for many Animal Collective fans who have been desiring more meditative tunes. “Tangerine Reef” is a gorgeous project and a testament to the beauty of the life all around us in the oceans, a life that is slowly receding.

Reviewers hyperfocusing like the subject of Norman Rockwell’s “The Art Critic” miss the point of the album. graphic by Conner Maggio

On criticism

There’s a debate in modern critical circles on the pertinence of context to an art piece. To what extent should the piece’s historical period, its creator’s beliefs and views and its contemporary response be considered in a modern judgement of the piece? This extends to the question of evolution; should a work be compared in relation to an artist’s past work, or should each piece exist in a context and place of its own, where it’s judged on only its own merits?

This is a difficult question to tackle, but one that most music critics seem to answer in the same way: in general, a musical artist’s growth matters. One can love a record all they want, but if it’s just “more of the same,” as some may say, why was it made in the first place? Judging a record on its own merits becomes difficult when one seeks to analyze the growth of an artist in such a way.

In this respect, bands that have already recorded what is critically considered their magnum opus have left their best years behind them. Never again can they create something that won’t be compared to and somewhat diminished in the shadow of their former great work. This happened to Radiohead (though they did a miraculous job of breaking and immediately re-mending the cycle); this happened to Kanye West (though the fanbase is always split on which opus is opus-er); and this happened to Animal Collective with 2009’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion.”

A lot of the press I’ve seen for “Tangerine Reef” has panned it for being plodding, aimless, sometimes boring. These are fair criticisms, for as I’ve stated earlier the album doesn’t hold up extremely well under intense listening except to pick apart the fibers of sound, a hobby that not all music listeners practice. Some critics don’t think a piece should be enjoyable “in the background” alone, and that indeed this removes the purpose of the music. That’s a fair point, and I won’t argue with it.

Time and time again, though, I’ve seen articles implicitly laying the record’s lack of musical cogency on the absence of Noah Lennox, the drummer-singer apparently considered to be the pop edge of the band by most of these critics.
What is context, in this context? When one attempts to compare a record to one from the band’s past, one better be familiar with the band and its members. Lennox is a huge part of the band, no doubt, and one of the reasons they hit their stardom in 2009 (he penned their most well-known single, “My Girls”), but someone even vaguely familiar with the influences the various band members have on the collective’s sound wouldn’t pin Lennox as the sole pop savant in the group. Not when “The Purple Bottle” exists, or “Peacebone,” or “In the Flowers,” or “Turn Into Something” or even “FloriDada,” all of which are undeniably pop-centric songs that were all written by David Portner, a member who is still very much present on “Tangerine Reef,” a member who is more than capable of bringing pop to the project when he sees fit.

Such critics seem to see the lack of finger-snapping, toe-tapping tunes on the new project as a result of Lennox’s absence, rather than a simple stylistic shift effected and preferred by the contributing members. Such reductive interpretation of the band’s past work in relation to the present is a gross banishment of the band’s own musical aspirations, their free-willed desire in creation.

What am I trying to do beyond flexing my Animal Collective knowledge on the reader? I’m only trying to begin a dialogue in which the criticism-reading audience considers the real importance of an artist’s past work.

Growth matters and is by all means encouraged for the benefit of both the artist and the listener, but it must kill the artists to be seen as having grown in the wrong direction when all their work is decried in the face of their past efforts. Artist agency is, somewhat ironically, something that is hardly considered anymore in modern music criticism. So many critics seem to see music as the logical result of a creative mind, rather than the sweated-and-bled over child of months and months of directed and aimed pursuit at creation. Music doesn’t happen; it’s made. Behind it are humans, all with goals and functions and personalities in the wake of their past work. Remember these humans.

Post Author: Ethan Veenker