arly returns suggested that Strawberry Jam would end up Animal Collective’s electronic album. The disc’s first single, “Peacebone,” began with a nattering stir and diligently straddled a synthesized bass rumble. Pre-release road tests of the material have found the band sans guitar, while Panda Bear admitted that his sequencer-reliant Person Pitch was a conscious step towards dance music. An inevitable move, perhaps, for a group of exciting sonic architects who have always incorporated loops and noise into their clatter.
Red herrings, one and all: tones still skip, poke, and ripple, and they do so now with the increased aid of rubber buttons and hard plastic knobs but Strawberry Jam retains all of the band’s musical signifiers. No, the change Strawberry Jam enacts is of a more personal nature: Avey Tare, his voice centered and unmolested, enunciates off manageable pieces of his headspace for the first time. No longer a splattered mess of voices, Strawberry Jam establishes Tare as the emotional bedrock of the band.
No narrative emerges, but, finally, tangible images, cultural references, and specific locations puncture the mix: Jack the Ripper, Brooklyn, breasts, babies. Lines of thought may be obtuse, but are traceable: “Now I think it’s alright / To feel inhuman” from “For Reverend Green.” “Chores” is literal, taking sanctuary in industriousness. “Fireworks” goes to lengths to parse selfishness, with Tare explaining, “People greet me / I’m polite / ‘What’s the day? / What’s you doing? / How’s your mood? / How’s that song?’” but later, “I can’t lift you up / My mind is tired…I’m only all I see sometimes.” Suddenly, “Collective” seems less apt; Tare is a character, a proper frontman. We are buried somewhere in his ear.
This increased transparency, however, highlights some queasy aspects of AC that we’ve known but haven’t yet had to stare down: namely, Tare is an awkward lyricist and the band’s songcraft has slowly accumulated formulae. “Peacebone” mixes buttresses loving imagery—“Half of my fingers / Are dipped in the sand”—with solid blunders—“You’re progressing letters that you use to cook your broccoli,” and Tare makes a habit of these oddities throughout. Feels largely excised the sloth and lard from the band’s repertoire—no 12-minute jamz, no earthen rumbas—shuffling the band three steps to the right, toward indie rock. Despite the subtle gear exchange, Strawberry Jam continues down this path, with seven of its nine songs falling between four-and-half and seven minutes. Years of honing their craft has left AC with three tempos, albeit the important ones—slow, medium, and fast (the split here goes 3/4/2)—and little differentiation inside them. “Winter Wonder Land” is the most egregious offender: a stereotypical AC song, in lyrics, arrangement, and pace if there ever was one. “Unsolved Mysteries” is right on its tail. Any real disappointment garnered by Strawberry Jam should be linked to the band’s unexpected failure to wring new wrinkles from their electronics.
A long, exhausting listen, Strawberry Jam will occasionally satiate fans hungry for the band’s strange brilliance. “Peacebone” bobs and chirps, and the closing couplet, “Cuckoo Cuckoo” and “Derek” is as bloody, serene, and marooned as is comfortable. The pillowy middle—epics “For Reverend Green” and “Fireworks”—skate confidently on Tare’s unpredictable vocal fissures and offer the strongest evidence yet that should AC become an establishment (like Fugazi or the Fall) Tare has the shoulders to carry them. On “Cuckoo,” especially, he arrives churlish and bare: “I can’t hold what’s in my hand / Don’t do any good to say this isn’t what I planned…Where’s my mom? / I wanna hold her tight.” Cheeks burnt, wires frayed, we are all gloriously embarrassed, Tare among us.