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Animal Collective hit a rich creative peak on the disorientatingly sprawling yet fully focused Isn’t It Now?

"Isn't It Now?"

Release date: 29 September 2023
Animal Collective Isnt It Now cover
26 September 2023, 09:00 Written by Janne Oinonen

"Just grab something, take hold!", the massed harmonies of Animal Collective declare at one point during Isn’t It Now?.

It’s solid advice: the almost disorientating stream of ideas (all of them good) that bubbles throughout the Baltimore-born quartet’s 12th studio album often makes it resemble a creatively fertile, wildly ricocheting rollercoaster ride.

Drawn from material from the same fertile 2019 writing sessions in Tennessee that laid the foundations for last year’s very fine Time Skiffs, Isn’t It Now? maintains its predecessor’s rediscovered emphasis on live instrumentation. With one crucial difference: whereas COVID dictated that Time Skiffs had to be recorded remotely to click track, Isn’t It Now? showcases the vibrant prowess of a band locking into an eye-to-eye groove.

For all the band’s many other strengths, not many would readily describe Animal Collective as explicitly funky. Aided by producer Russell Elevado‘s expertise in capturing the in-the-moment interaction between musicians on a shared mission (Elevado’s past credits include Kamasi Washington and D’Angelo), the F-word is often a perfectly apt label to apply to Isn’t It Now. Even when the proceedings are at their most abstracted and woozy, we’re rarely far from another outbreak of rhythmic uplift: for example, see how the troubled and brooding, stuttering eeriness of “Magicians from Baltimore” eventually blooms into a piano-led bounce that’s not far removed from the loose-limbed New Orleans brand of funkiness, or how the restless carousel swirls of “Genies Open” give way to a sweatily exuberant, bass-heavy coda. The inviting warmth of the outcomes is pure balmy aural catnip after the deliberately harsh electronics Animal Collective occasionally ventured into after hitting the perfect balance of experimentation and accessibility with 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Most albums would capsize under weight of a colossus like “Defeat”, a seamless combination of disembodied, sweet yet wounded underwater harmonies, drone-fueled introspection and outbreaks of mellow yet exuberant rhythmic mantras (which echo the Grateful Dead at their most joyously lively) that doesn’t waste a second despite its marathon 22-minute duration. However, the rest of Isn’t It Now? lives up to the outsized expectations created by its centrepiece. There are three brief pop-savvy tracks that resemble the melodic directness of Reset, drummer/vocalist Panda Bear’s recent collaboration with Peter “Sonic Boom” Kember: “Broke Zodiac” (imagine Warpaint transmitting from the bottom of an ocean) and “Gem & I” (a multilayered arrangement resolving itself in an intoxicatingly addictive chorus) both boast some of Animal Collective’s strongest hooks yet. A heartfelt ode to the passing of time and the inevitability of loss, the uncharacteristically direct piano-led ballad “Stride Rite” is even more impressive, suggesting sides to the band that haven’t been fully explored yet.

Bursting at the seams with vivid and vibrant inspiration, and immune to filler or idling despite the album’s epic 64-minute duration, Isn’t It Now? neatly thrashes the idea that bands approaching the 25th anniversary of their debut album should politely curdle into creative atrophy and succumb to (at best) cosy nostalgia or, at worst, cod-webbed irrelevance.

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