Paring down a great batch of songs can be just as challenging as making them. For Animal Collective, it’s an opportunity to reshape what other bands would consider afterthoughts into a compelling and distinct project. In the summer of 2019, the band rented a cabin in rural Tennessee and made enough material for two albums, but the pandemic forced them to cut the sessions short, and they ended up crafting 2022’s vibrant Time Skiffs by recording remotely to a click-track. When the time was right, they got in the studio with producer Russell Elevado, whose credits include D’Angelo, the Roots, and Kamasi Washington, to lay down the remaining tracks over the course of 12 days at the Bunker in Brooklyn. The focus was less on refining, tweaking, and embellishing their ideas than harnessing the natural energy of them playing in a room together, which gives it a different feel than Time Skiffs – it’s also, at 65 minutes, their longest LP to date. But it doesn’t sound like they strove to make Isn’t It Now? a markedly different album for the sake of experimentation or proving a point. The biggest shift is in allowing the remarkable groundedness of its predecessor to take a more fluid form, which leads them to newly rich and surprising places.
Isn’t It Now? is an album that doesn’t follow any linear or narrative logic, not so much defying as simply doing away with it. Which is why it’s strange that the 22-minute epic ‘Defeat’ feels like such an obvious, almost traditional centerpiece. Having heard it as a single, everything else seems to coalesce around the track, which unfurls slowly, like both a mood and statement piece. “Just grab something take hold/ The only thing you know,” they sing as drones heavy and light sprawl in different directions. The track picks up a rhythm and chirpy melody about ten minutes in, then fizzes out again, breathing in reflections on endurance and coming of age that mirror its effervescent structure. It requires more patience than some of the other songs on the LP, but it shares the same beating heart. ‘Stride Ride’ is by far the most conventional arrangement here, wrapping itself around Deakin’s evocative piano chords, but it’s just a more direct way to express a similarly universal message – or really, a proposition: “Let’s invite all the songs that we wrote so we’d know and let them go,” he sings.
It’s the kind of emotional openness that feels especially resonant in the context of a group that’s self-aware about its history but continuously moving towards growth. Even when Animal Collective flirts with slightly divergent influences, the real joy of Isn’t It Now?‘s best songs isn’t their unfamiliarity, but the way they give themselves permission to luxuriate in subtle moments of discovery, like when the drifting psychedelia of ‘Genie’s Open’ turns into an exuberant refrain, twisting the words “sea of light” as if to suggest a different part of the journey – or just a POV shift. ‘Magicians From Baltimore’ is cut from the same cloth, swelling ominously for five minutes before landing on a bouncy, piano-led jam that brings us closer down to earth. The simplicity here is key, as Animal Collective derive as much pleasure from a slick guitar line as they might have previously had in a noisy crescendo, and it extends to some of the lyricism, too – it’s a song about leaving your hometown for the promise of something new, one with a curious conclusion. “There is a dreamland many miles inside me,” it goes, “And I go there when I can/ Many miles haunting me.”
But the quest, as echoed through Isn’t It Now?, never feels solitary. Like ‘Defeat’, the album as a whole is deeper, funkier, and more immediate than it has any right to be, while still holding on to the group’s individual quirks. And though the shorter tracks might feel redundant in an album that amounts to an odyssey, they’re crafted with the same carefree enthusiasm that makes it – the epic – feel less important than the people performing it; those voices who, in singing about angels and magicians and mystic worlds colliding, are really singing about themselves and us. “Loneliness is left for letters,” they sing at one point on ‘Defeat’. This music’s for us now.