The generally agreed upon narrative for Animal Collective is that they began with the freewheeling creativity, spirit, and reckless abandon of a toddler, and have slowly, album by album, turned that creativity and spirit into something far more controlled but no less compelling. There’s certainly a great deal of truth to that story. Lord knows this year’s shimmering and triumphant Merriweather Post Pavilion doesn’t just seem like a logical evolution from the maker’s of 2003’s violently chaotic Here Comes the Indian. These two albums sound like the works of different species.
But even in their noisier days, Animal Collective weren’t only interested in sonically representing the unrestricted imaginations of the not quite domesticated. Almost as frequently, the band devoted a great deal of time to creating moments that show the seemingly boundless adrenaline of youth draining away. Spirit They’ve Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished certainly had its tranquil moments. Panda Bear’s Young Prayer, an elegy for his late father, showed the singer’s grief had knocked him into an introverted fog, only able to express his sadness through inconsistent guitar strumming and heartbreakingly pretty chanting. Even Sung Tongs, largely considered to be the group’s pop breakthrough, featured more halcyon chanting than hooks.
Which brings us to the newly reissued Campfire Songs, a record that offers the strongest evidence of Animal Collective’s pastoral leanings. Recorded in one take on a porch in 2003 and augmented with surrounding field noise, Campfire Songs sounds pretty much the way the album title implies it will. Of the five songs, some seem planned and rehearsed (“Doggy”), others are less rigidly formed (“Queen In My Pictures”), built around a series of ostensibly improvised harmonies and chords. And, as you might expect, none of these songs are blessed (or cursed, depending on your viewpoint) with the trappings of any kind of studio gimmickry. However the description that immediately precedes this sentence makes you feel will absolutely determine your ability to enjoy Campfire Songs.
This isn’t the point in the review where you find a vigorous argument in favor of the album’s brilliant esotericism, nor will you find a lengthy screed decrying its artsy pretensions. Campfire Songs lands somewhere in the middle, neither an absolutely essential entry in the Animal Collective canon, nor a mere curiosity for completists only. Animal Collective stay characteristically true to the album’s concept, and even when you consider the simplicity of the project, its still well executed. Each of the five tracks flow so effortlessly into each other that it would be incongruous to hear them out of the context of the album. In that respect, Campfire Songs deserves to be praised for its consistency. At the same time, that same consistency deprives the album of any real highlights. So it’s unlikely that this album will make the kind of impression on you that you may have come to expect from Animal Collective, but that shouldn’t prevent you from putting it on occasionally and letting its soothing acoustic tones slow your heart rate a little.