When you’re Avey Tare, a founding member of cultural landmark Animal Collective, releasing solo material is a tricky prospect. For instance, I feel a little bad that any thinking I do about Avey Tare’s album will inevitably be in the context of what Animal Collective does with music, partially because they sound similar at times, but partially because they, to varying degrees of success, are trying to accomplish similar things. So how well does Tare succeed?
The best answer is probably that he succeeds “adequately.”
The first impression of this album, fittingly entitled Down There, is one of murkiness. It feels a little like wading in swampy waters, with the music bubbling up from underneath. It’s actually a distinct sort of position to be hearing things from, and it’s a good first impression.
But when all is said and done, after the bubbling murk ceases, you’re left with the music itself. And as dark and sloshy as the sound is, the majority of these songs are kind of… easy.
Sometimes on this record, it feels like Tare (real name David Porter) is trying to make some simple, catchy pop music. The rhythms and melodies here are mostly quite straightforward (it’s mere inches away from being straight lo-fi folk-pop), all masked by the maddening, muddled, murky sound.
And that’s probably by design. Animal Collective has always sort of been about challenging our notions of pop music. But this record has the embellishments of “challenging” without the actual challenge, a lot of the Animal Collective sound without the gift for weird-pop and the tendency for the songs to worm their way into your brain by sheer force of unexpectedness.
There’s still a very Animal Collective vibe running through the proceedings. That sort of swirling water effect that seems to seep in everywhere here has also been present in a lot of Animal Collective’s work. And the insistent lack of rise-and-fall that characterizes Animal Collective is also a small part of what Tare is doing here.
But only a small part. In the end, most of these tracks are pretty conventionally functional: “Oliver Twist” and the single “Lucky 1” are basically a slightly-off dance tracks, “3 Umbrellas” has a pretty catchy chorus, and “Heather in the Hospital,” for all its obviously dark and death-obsessed imagery, is bound to get toes tapping.
That dark imagery, actually, is what sort of unifies what otherwise could have just been a collection of somewhat interesting songs. The murky depths of the record complement the equally murky images of infernal boat trips, self-doubt, death-fixation and introspection that populate the record. It’s a pretty unified whole, and it certainly rewards listening, but it’s also probably not going to stick in any minds for very long. Animal Collective breaks down the little Lego pieces of pop music and reconstructs them into big, complex, surprising, exhilarating structures. Avey Tare, on this record, uses those Lego pieces to build something modest and simple, which might be an achievement in itself, but it feels like not quite large enough of an achievement.
It’s possible that Avey Tare’s efforts here would have been heard differently a few years back, maybe before Strawberry Jam or Merriweather Post Pavillion, when such off-kilter-but-accessible fare would have sounded like refreshingly untrod territory (it’s a different album if you picture it as Animal Collective going in a tangential direction after Feels). But Animal Collective has already blazed a trail that this record seems content to merely re-shuffle and re-explore. It walks this trail well, don’t get me wrong. But I kept waiting for the record to strike out and maybe get a little more lost.