Animal Collective Find New Life on 'Isn't It Now?'

BY Alan RantaPublished Sep 26, 2023

At their best, Animal Collective deconstruct pop forms and ecstatically regurgitate them in inspired spurts, alive with ideas that resist notions of cohesion or logic. Their sound is always in flux, a wash of distortion, effects, processes and homage like a cassette tape of Beach Boys obscurities that was left in the sun too long. Miraculously, after two decades of existence, everything comes together to make their 12th studio album, Isn't It Now?, one of their most successful experiments yet.

Animal Collective's latest venture was produced by Russell "the Dragon" Elevado. As a co-founder of the Analogue Foundation, the Dragon is a staunch believer in physical gear, recording to magnetic tape on vintage equipment with a mixing console rather than using digital plug-ins and DAWs. When employed properly, that subtle difference can bring a song together like the Big Lebowski's rug brought his room together, and Elevado is a master of that mystical alchemy. With his skills and their vision, Elevado and Animal Collective have blended the best of their strengths and influences into something greater than themselves. 

The seeds of Isn't It Now? were planted in the sessions for last year's Time Skiffs. The band had recorded the album a few years earlier in a Nashville countryside cabin, writing enough tracks for two records. They saved their favorite leftovers from those sessions until they could find a couple weeks at The Bunker in New York, and have Elevado guide their natural chemical imbalances for a spell.

There's a wonderful flow throughout Isn't It Now? that begins with its first sound. Opening track "Soul Capturer" starts things off with a smattering of crickets and studio chatter, hinting at the time and effort behind this album in a surreal, dreamlike way. The track quickly lands on a shuffling, woozy dirge with washboard percussion and acoustic guitar like the dark side of Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime," yet its harmonies fade out with a wail à la Harry Nilsson's take on "Everybody's Talkin.'" Retro, futuristic and of the now… What an invitation!

Continuing the momentum, "Genie's Open" unfurls its percolating percussion and jaunty bassoon, twisting into a cosmic waltz until it resolves into a repeating "sea of light" refrain that splits the difference between the Beach Boys and Kraftwerk, as AnCo's best work often does.

Taking up a good portion of the album's running time, "Defeat" is a sprawling opus splaying moods in all directions; sinewy violin and cello, and warbled harmonies. Its baroque droning and lysergic soundscapes bend space and time around a moment until all that remains is the here and now. Notably, among all of their subtle improvements over time, the elusive Deakin has taken his piano playing to another level. The pining elegance of "Stride Rite" features some of his most captivating work, forming the emotional core of a heart-twinging song that attempts to work through grief and let it go.

Deakin also lends a dank piano swagger to "Magicians from Baltimore." Beginning with pensive drum bursts and moaning vocals that speak to returning home and wanting to leave right away, the track's feeling is quite obtuse until a fuzzy bass tone drones in, and the beat coalesces into a swampy At War with the Mystics-era Flaming Lips jam. 

Albums like Feel, Strawberry Jam and Merriweather Post Pavilion are typically considered Animal Collective's best works, yet they all lack the sustained presence of Isn't It Now? Lord only knows if it's the impact of Elevado or simply 20-odd years of musical chemistry coalescing into something new, but however it happened, Animal Collective found the now sound.

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