Animal Collective’s strange and sublime Strawberry Jam turns 10 this week. Even for a band as willfully experimental and consistently eclectic as this, the album stands out as an abrasive anomaly in their discography. It’s a deliberate detour that captures the uneasy tension of it’s members, who were starting to face the fact that life is beginning to get in the way for each of them. Animal collective were never at each others throats, or going to break up in venomous Van Halen fashion, but they were finding it harder to devote time to each other.
As documented in his exquisite solo album Person Pitch—which also turned 10 earlier this year—Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) had fully embraced family life in Lisbon, Dave Portner (Avey Tare) had recently got married and Josh Dibb (Deakin) would soon take a four year break form the band’s rigorous touring schedule to eventually try focus on his own material. Of course there would be more albums—the masterpiece Merriweather Post Pavilion was just around the corner—but the turnout would slow down considerably going into the 2010’s and it’s probably not all that contentious to suggest that Strawberry Jam was Animal Collective’s last great album as a four piece. It was as if these ten tracks had channeled the nervous energy of this unspoken fracturing into gloriously hectic pop music that sounded equal parts hazardous and hypnotic.
On a online fan forum called Collected Animals, Geologist had stated that SJ was a desert record, but admitted “when you think of the desert you think of twangy guitars and Morricone soundtracks and Jim Morrison walking with the ghost of an Indian, but we don’t really see it that way”. No they really don’t. This is a desert record as scintillating, scorched earth. It’s a psychedelic trip in the middle of the Mojave; a visceral, joyous ride in which that one would find terrifying and transcendent if only any of it, in true Dadaist fashion, meant anything in the end.
On previous albums, Animal Collective used their voices as, well, a collective, but here the acidic tones of Avey Tare take centre stage. His delivery— ranging from straightforward Sprechgesang to violent vocal outbursts —might be grading for some, but his caustic presence is what affords the songs that harshness of the derelict landscape they are trying to recreate. The sheer force of his sometimes searing screech is like a disciplinarian forcing us to take notice, an authoritative figure amidst the chaos of the manic melodies, sonic misdirection and explosive hooks.
The opening 30 seconds of first track ‘Peacebone’ are a sonic mission statement for the record; A frenzied buzz of white noise gradually morphs into something resembling a cohesive rhythm as the driving drum beat tames the disorder. This intro sets the scene for a band who are trying to domesticate the primal aspect of both their music and the natural world but also acknowledging the limits of such an endeavor.
The lyrics are oblique, grandiose ruminations that one might come up with during a drug induced epiphany in that sometimes they’re borderline unintelligible and sometimes genuinely insightful. “It was the clouds that carved the mountains / It was the mountains that made the kids scream” is a gorgeous metaphor that applies to both nature’s and music’s need to rely on arduous behind the scenes work to inspire awe in their audiences.
Elsewhere the band’s growing pains were beginning to show. On Feels and the folksy Sung Tongs ,Animal Collective reveled in youthful reverie and fondly recalled the freewheeling fun of childhood but here the nostalgic gazing is a bittersweet one. “What’s pain? What’s sadness anyway? It’s not crying like a child” is sung on the finickily opulent ‘Unresolved Mysteries’, in a lyric that understand that true emotional turmoil isn’t really known until well after the time its okay to show it.
Pop is deconstructed with zeal as the crackling sense of unpredictably pervades the album. ‘Chores’ is a sonic seizure of hyperactive chanting about doing housework on a high until the extended outro that suddenly slows into an eerie comedown of ambient haze. ‘Cuckoo Cuckoo’ is a schizoid number that jolts from spectral serenade with palindromic piano riffs to a volatile eruption of chorus that documents the sense of losing one’s self when you lose touch with those you love. It’s not all existential insanity however, as the final track ‘Derek’ is a beautiful lament to a late pet dog that prepared the singer for fatherhood.
Strawberry Jam also contains the best back-to-back of not only the band’s career but also in all of alternative music in the 2000’s. The one-two punch of ‘For Reverend Green’/’Fireworks’ is13 minutes of indie at its most incendiary. The former track is a powerhouse that once again yearns for the simplicity of childhood. On FRG, Avey Tare’s voice is ferociously defiant as he’s backed up by a violent torrent of electronic beats and cacophonous soundbites. He howls like a madman on a mission up until to a heart pounding chorus that pours over you in a tidal wave of euphoria.
‘Fireworks’ is the more hopeful side of the same coin in that it’s the rare moment on the album the credulous world of idealistic infancy and embittered reality of adulthood can live in brief, symbiotic harmony. Revisiting the past , or in this instance “That sacred night where we watched the fireworks” is a worthwhile place to return to for once. The playful light show imagined in the lyrics is a sight to behold for all ages and the record’s most human moment. The jittery rhythm of the incessant beat, the cheerful ear worm of the infectious vocals and the echoed guitar lines come together to form Animal Collective most optimistically indelible melody.
But 10 years on, what is the legacy of Strawberry Jam? As it sits between Feels and Merriweather Post Pavilion it’s bookended by two brightly lit,esoteric pop albums with more upbeat outlooks. But this is perhaps the animal collective record for 2017. An unstable, maniacal longing for simpler times, whose tumultuous soundscape and dash of optimism in face of deep uncertainty mirrors our upsetting political climate today.
It may have been Merriweather that stands as their landmark work and placed them in the pantheon of indie folklore, but Strawberry jam was the record that proved a band could become festival favourites without having to rely on a typical set up of guitars, drums and bass. By time of its release, the harder rock edge of indie had lost its lustre as the like The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand were starting to be marginalised by the zeitgeist. Suddenly it would be about the psychedelic or folk rock stylings of Grizzly Bear, Yeasayer or Dirty Projectors. Animal Collective both preceded that transition and allowed it to flourish; Strawberry Jam may well have marked that turning point.
It’s ironic that we’re even looking back at something that tells us an “obsession with the past is like a dead fly and just a few things are related to the ‘old times’”. But it’s it hard to imagine any of these songs ever becoming ones from the old times, because they didn’t sound like 2007 , or any time for that matter.