In 2004, the art-pop-noise-rock-jam-band-freak-folk-whatzit act Animal Collective released Sung Tongs, a bewitching record full of loopy acoustic strumming, jarring harmonies, and electronic gurgles that would all periodically arrange into something resembling familiar songform, fall out of step, unspool outright, and edge back into partnership. Sung Tongs was a minor breakthrough, making the Brooklyn-via-Baltimore band's small but devoted following a little less small and a lot more devoted. Reviewing the record, Pitchfork noted, "musically, Animal Collective sound more 'pop' here than they ever have."
Ever since, critics have cast each new album from this ecstatically confounding band as a teasing tussle between the avant-garde and the accessible, with the latter steadily gaining ground. The Times called 2005's Feels "some of their lushest, most decipherable music so far." Rolling Stone said that 2007's Strawberry Jam flashed even "more shards of tune" than its predecessor. This year's Merriweather Post Pavilion has sold a remarkable 140,000 copies and recently topped year-end-best lists at Spin, Pitchfork, Entertainment Weekly, and the Times (where it came in at No. 2). Blender called it "their sunniest, most likeable record." Going by the blurbs alone, you might assume that, in a few years, Animal Collective will complete its career-long metamorphosis into ABBA.
But this take on the band, regularly replenished with each release, is both unfair to its past songs—misrepresenting them as impermeable, self-indulgent, and a lot of work to enjoy—and unfair to new listeners, enticed by the hubbub surrounding Merriweather Post Pavilion, who come to the record expecting a band that has submerged its weirdest and most gnomic impulses for an idiosyncratic but ultimately pop sound. Put Animal Collective's catalog on shuffle, and the view that the band used to be difficult and gradually eased up proves inaccurate. Hop-scotching from 2000's debut Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished (a collaboration between the group's chief songwriters, who call themselves Avey Tare and Panda Bear) to Strawberry Jam backto Here Comes the Indian, it becomes clear that Animal Collective's tendencies—toward the oblong and the linear, the clamorous and the pretty, the rambling and the taut—have coexisted in a more or less unchanging ratio.
Setting up camp far from the assaultive, abrasive end of the "experimental" spectrum, the band has always toggled between two basic modes: jubilant and dreamy. When Avey Tare screams, which he does fairly often, the sound is more toddler-after-one-juice-box-too-many than hellhound-in-agony. The most inaccessible thing about "Penny Dreadfuls," from 2000, is its slow build and eight-minute running time: The stately piano figure driving the song is clear, emotive, and wouldn't sound that out of place on a record by Fiona Apple or Death Cab for Cutie (or, for that matter, Norah Jones). The syncopated acoustic guitars on 2004's minutelong "Sweet Road" were chipper enough to score a Crayola commercial (one of the cuddliest cases of "selling out" in indie-rock history). Skip forward in time to Merriweather Post Pavilion, and you'll find the synthesizer swarm on the single "My Girls" is as woozy as any in the band's repertoire, the tempo and texture on "In the Flowers" are as languid and vaporous, and the beat on "Daily Routine" is as herky-jerky and transient.
The biggest difference between the new and old material—and perhaps the reason for the common view of Animal Collective as trending, over the years, toward greater accessibility—is that the band has enriched and expanded the overtures its music makes to our bodies. Recent songs aren't significantly less weird than their forebears (even the candy-sweet "What Would I Want? Sky," from the new Fall Be Kind EP, features an elusive downbeat and begins with three minutes of drone and clatter), but they are more overwhelmingly physical. The gurgles and slurps are wetter and more viscous than ever, and the synthesizer stabs and bass thumps hit harder, even if they seldom resolve into anything so regular as a dance beat. (The band seems to owe something of its beefed-up sound to the appearance on Merriweather Post Pavilion and Fall Be Kind of engineer Ben Allen, who worked on Gnarls Barkley's St. Elsewhere and who has said the band hired him for his "low-end expertise.")
Animal Collective's basic mission, however, remains the same. The band doesn't want to tear down the architecture of pop music so much as Escher up the place, to let the dissolving logic of dreams unmoor traditional expectations of song craft, and to occasion happy epiphanies in us by cultivating an atmosphere of disorientation and surprise.
Of course, plenty contemporary acts share similar impulses and techniques—Animal Collective's frequent tourmates Black Dice, Ariel Pink, and Gang Gang Dance are among the best—but none has managed to fill concert halls and sell records like Animal Collective. Perhaps the band's rise to the top of the indie-music heap can be explained by its fondness for and facility with big, beguiling sing-alongs—melodies that trace unlikely but assured paths into our heads—and comforting, untroubled lyrics about waking up at dawn, standing naked with a lover before a bathroom mirror, dancing barefoot to "songs from the cars as they pass," and caring for a family. (You'd be tempted to call the band hippies if Panda Bear's best-loved solo song, "Take Pills," didn't shun drugs for natural highs.) Animal Collective's music is challenging, but it's hardly ever unpleasant or boring. The sense of mystery, of an enigma left unsolved, enhances the direct, openhearted instincts at the band's core. The "avant-garde" and the "accessible" work in concert—to the point where it can be hard to tell one from the other—to keep us curious and entertained. We may frequently feel at sea, but the water's warm.
Update Jan. 5, 6:38 p.m.:Slate readers note that Panda Bear has said his song "Take Pills" is not about recreational drugs but about antidepressants.