Experimental music, if you can let such a term pass, is assumed esoteric and inhuman. It's about the sound or the concept or the conceit, not about expression or emotion or empathy. That argument is used alternately to support the embrace or dismissal of fringe music, or anything that doesn't cloth itself with transparency or didacticism. It's fallacious, of course, mostly a consequence of people not having the time or the interest to engage the context of something apart from the words they are hearing. Pop music wears its feelings on its hooks, but music that doesn't isn't necessarily without feeling. Tony Conrad grinding his violin bow is personal, as is Alvin Lucier sitting alone in a room, smoothing out his stutter with an exploration of that room's reverb environment. "Sound artists," as they're often called, are human musicians.
To that end, Animal Collective—a Maryland quartet that's spread itself like seeds over two continents in the past several years—has been a gateway act. Of the bigger bands included in the expansive indie rock umbrella, Animal Collective is the perhaps the most unconventional and expansive. Over five albums, they've developed a strident sonic approach, using noise, sustained tones, short, iterative samples, delirious tribal drumming and sing-to-the-sky harmonies to make points of skewing pop on a slow-burn pyre. And—at the band's best, 2005's Feels and 2004's Young Prayer, a solo album from co-founder Noah Lennox (Panda Bear)—those points have been extremely personal.
Feels, the band's 2005 album, was the result of internal upheaval: Founders Lennox and David Portner (Avey Tare) were fighting, as was the band's integral second half, longtime friends Josh Dibb (Deakin) and Brian Weitz (Geologist). Lennox had gotten married and become a father, and Dibb was calling couches up and down the East Coast home. In that way, Feels is completely mimetic—messy and dynamic and uncertain, starting with joy and lots of sex, moving with giddy laughs through smiles and weekdays spent in bed and arriving at anxiety for the future. Feels is a gauzy record: its thick globules of sound plied like variegated taffy around melodies and delightful movements. Its foundations are very personal, but its expressions are very ambiguous—the sort of listen that gives the audience an inlet and instant attachment.
Young Prayer, the second solo album from Lennox as Panda Bear, works in much the same way. A reflection on his father's recent death, Young Prayer uses acoustic guitars, spare percussion, phases piano and largely wordless vocals (recorded in the house where Lennox's father died) to reflect the point between grief and fond remembrance, where emotions bend into a dozen shades of gray. Unadorned and beautifully unfocused, Young Prayer's 28 minutes are like watching a son console himself with decades-old happiness.
Now the world is clamoring for Strawberry Jam, the eighth album from Animal Collective, a bright study in taking the band's sound aberrations and folding them into some of the brightest, most enthused pop songs the members have yet written for the band. It comes just five months after Person Pitch, Panda Bear's third solo record, a glowing orchestration of lavish Beach Boys vocals and handclap rhythms. Strawberry Jam may not be an attempt to let more people into the Animal Collective fold, but it's easy enough to see it that way. After all, the band jumped from Fat Cat (their home for Sung Tongs, Feels, several EPs, singles and a split with Vashti Bunyan) to Domino, and the textures never supercede to the songs the way they do on Feels or several of the band's other albums. In that way, it actually feels a little less experimental and less personal. For most, that's a paradox. Going back and listening to Feels, it feels like a gospel.
Animal Collective plays Cat's Cradle with Tickley Feather Thursday, Sept. 27, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $15.