Produced by Scott Colburn
At the end of “The Devil Wears Prada,” fictional fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestley deems her super assistant Andie Sachs “her greatest disappointment.” Taken out of context, that comment fails to convey that Miranda actually has great respect for Andie’s humanity and character. Through the course of the film, she proves herself to be an extraordinary assistant but not in the way Miranda initially hoped.
For the purposes of argument, let’s picture me as a moody, narcissistic, and arrogant Miranda-type. Well, maybe it’s too hard, so don’t bother. No matter, because all you really need to gather from the “Prada” analogy is not so much how I’m like Miranda but that Animal Collective’s most recent album, Strawberry Jam, is my personal greatest disappointment.
In the past few years since Animal Collective released a pair of breakout albums, “Sung Tongs” and “Feels,” the band has built a rabid fan following that regularly burns up their message board (titled “Collected Animals”) at a pace to rival that of Radiohead’s own fan base. A Radiohead comparison is warranted, since both the aforementioned rock legends and Animal Collective operate on a creative level far above that their peers — although, since Animal Collective hasn’t been making music as long, their rookie fan base is much more easily rankled by obnoxious YouTube trolls who bait them with cries of “hipster fad” and “elitist garbage.”
While Animal Collective fans (myself included) will universally attest that the band is the real deal, we cannot for the life of us agree which individual songs deserve praise and which are mediocre. I can’t comment on the state of the online community before Strawberry Jam was unceremoniously leaked this June (over two months before the official release date), but once it did, the deluge of responses was comically anarchic. A track like “Chores” from Strawberry Jam might garner proclamations from one fan as a life-changing experience, but it might get thrown under the bus like a rotten banana peel by another. Some couldn’t stand Avey Tare’s punctuated shouts on “For Reverend Green” while others found that they made the song. At least everyone seems to like “Peacebone.”
Is it the band’s fault if Animal Collective’s fans make hyper-subjective judgments of their songs? Certainly not, but I believe a band has a responsibility to bring those songs together in an artful way that brings out the best in each of them. That’s how albums — literal collections of songs — become Albums — decisive and cohesive works of art. It’s that elusive magic that makes The White Album decisively worth five stars despite containing head-scratchers like “Wild Honey Pie” and “Piggies.” The White Album is the quintessential Album. Unfortunately, Strawberry Jam is not remotely an Album.
While it may not be an Album, Strawberry Jam is absolutely filled to the brim with originality. The electronic squeaks that kick off album-opener “Peacebone” sound like a beehive being rattled into a frenzy, but the chaos is only surface-deep as Animal Collective delivers one of their most twistedly catchy songs right out of the gate. Avey Tare’s blissful falsetto in the chorus is so inspired that it almost seems unfair for him to possess that much vocal talent. Ditto for “For Reverend Green,” which contains chugging, distorted guitars that call to mind a heart crushed by frustration and that same heart’s only cure. “Now I think it’s alright to feel inhuman now,” Avey Tare screams hoarsely as if choking under the weight of his own anxieties.
Album highlight “Winter Wonderland” strongly hints at the masterpiece that could have been. Dense and delicious, it is one of the few songs that was specifically not road-tested over the past year but written during the recent “Jam” sessions. As such, the studio-born track is richly layered like a vibrant single from the “Feels” era. That was the kind of artistic progression I’d been pining for: a greater emphasis on pop melodies while maintaining their trademark surreal organic atmospherics. They hit a home run with the former, but excepting “Winter Wonderland,” it was a swing and a miss with the latter.
Momentum-killing tracks like “Chores” and “Cuckoo Cuckoo” are sprinkled liberally with synthesized effects, but they only carry a semblance of depth and clog up the album’s running order. The most tragic casualty on Strawberry Jam, however, is “Fireworks.” When it debuted on tour almost two years ago, it carried a stunning vocal melody through waves of gorgeously icy echo that on the record are completely absent. It’s almost heart-breaking to see such creative songs muddled by shallow, misguided production.
This is why Strawberry Jam is so maddening; it is the most consistently brilliant set of songs in Animal Collective’s career, but as a whole it never takes shape or evokes any atmosphere. I know that’s the kind of unverifiable, pooh-poohing statement that people think music critics love to make, but I take no pleasure in this one. Without directly confessing to illegal downloading, I’ll say that I’ve had several months with which to acquaint and reacquaint myself with these songs from every possible angle in the hope that the soul of Strawberry Jam would finally bloom and reveal itself. No luck.
Maybe the album didn’t deserve to be dissected the way it did after it leaked. Drummer Panda Bear said in an interview that his greatest regret upon the leak was not the lost revenues, but that Strawberry Jam wouldn’t be delivered to fans in the form and manner the band had intended. If you remember, listeners were initially stumped by Radiohead’s “Kid A” when it snuck out piecewise onto Napster. In the intervening years, that album has found its way onto countless top 10 lists: albums of the decade, albums to get depressed to, albums to woo Bexxxley girls with … So here’s to hindsight — and the possibility that it someday will illuminate some obscure beauty in Strawberry Jam.