Over the past decade or so, pop music has basically replaced “water” as a good example of something that is ubiquitous and generally near-free. The stuff can feel valueless in the same way. You know this drill: You hear music in almost every building you walk into, access it via half the electronic devices in your home, and get enough of it online to spend the rest of your natural life clicking from MP3 to YouTube video without making so much as a dent. Etc. People care about water usage; nobody with an Internet connection is, say, thinking twice about “conserving” indie-rock MP3s.
The only problem with this superabundance is that music, unlike water, is made by people who would really like you to give it a listen such that its constant presence can occasionally feel less like a gift and more like a mob of hopefuls annoying you by trying to attract your attention to the way they make it, which is not particularly different from the way the next hopeful over makes it, except that it’s them. Never is this clearer than when someone tries to pass out free CDs of their music; nobody ever wants one. It would just be another damn person playing music like all the other music that’s already everywhere.
I’m being hyperbolic and negative here, obviously. I mention all this not to be grumpy or depressing but as a way of explaining something I’m pretty sure the band Animal Collective accomplished, some years back, that accounts for the staggering number of other indie acts that came hopping along in their footsteps. If it’s hard for the average record to seem necessary in a world of music on tap, one of the best illusions a musician can conjure is the sense that they’re driven by some other or greater impulse — that they’re tapping into some energy that exists totally outside the world of their making it and your listening to it. I do not, for the record, believe that Animal Collective are actually driven by anything so much grander than any other band; most all musicians strive for that vitality. It’s just that the sound of Animal Collective’s music has been remarkably good at signifying that “greater impulse.” They’ve consistently shot for tones that feel ritualistic, as if they’re leaping around a fire in the woods yelping and performing some psychedelic and/or pagan rite. They like song structures that read as weird celebratory blasts, or else just visionary shouts into space, or sparkly childlike wonderment. They’re good at sounding like they’re channeling or conjuring something — the same way that religious and ritual music presents as having some purpose beyond your entertainment. Leave aside the extent to which Animal Collective’s music is actually pretty good: It seems significant that they’ve found so many different sonic ways to telegraph the idea of Tapping Primal Energies. It’s no wonder so many other acts started to sound like them: They’d laid out an audio toolbox of production choices, vocal styles, and writing tricks that came off like visionary energy instead of just another band.
One of the vocal styles in question comes from band member Noah Lennox, a.k.a. Panda Bear, who sings in starry-eyed, raise-your-voice harmonies that can resemble, at various moments: earnest children baying around a campfire; lonely goatherds calling from hill to hill; some sort of monkish or liturgical concern dedicated to solemnly singing the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” in the apses of Gothic cathedrals; or possibly the way two people might try to sing in harmony on clear quiet nights if they were stranded on South Pacific islands about 200 yards away from each other. Which is to say: Lennox’s vocals are distinctive and hard to hear without dreaming up slightly fantastic settings for them to belong in. On his third solo album as Panda Bear, 2007’s Person Pitch, he matched that voice to a rush of endlessly looping samples, then methodically built up and broke down songs in the manner of dance music. The result felt whooshy, overexposed, and eaten away at the edges — the way the world looks when you’re standing on a bright beach without sunglasses — and was a fixture on best-of-year lists from indie types.
For his latest, the much-anticipated Tomboy, Lennox takes a step back from that sun-faded, beachy feeling. His vocals still come, as ever, in long, reverb-drenched harmonies that call out into empty space — but the space here is darker and deeper, moonlit instead of sunlit, and built from concrete chunks of guitar and synth instead of edgeless loops. He’s as entranced as ever by repeating sounds, but on this record they drop methodically from one chord to another, in sequences a little close to those of pop songs. (“Slow Motion” just repeats one revolving vocal line over four bars of the first chord, then another vocal line over four bars of the second, and so on — which is significantly more entrancing than it sounds.) Those listeners less entranced by repetition — plenty of people find this stuff needling and claustrophobic — will find slightly more variety as well. Tomboy bends its moods a bit: There’s muddy buzzing on the title track, a melancholy thrum for “Alsatian Darn,” and tender swooning on “Last Night at the Jetty,” parts of which sound like the Mamas & the Papas as interpreted by someone even more stoned than that group was.
Even after some years of exposure, Lennox’s vocals still work, at least for me; they still sound cozy and meditative and evoke those dreamy, escapist images. Midway through Tomboy, on a song called “Drone,” he lays his voice — in long, flat lines — over one big, buzzing synthesizer that shifts slowly from chord to chord. It doesn’t remotely sound like an art-music “drone”; it sounds like a church, one with a giant organ and someone inside singing an old Protestant hymn about half as fast as he should. It practically ends with a drawn-out “amen” and comes two tracks after something actually called “Surfer’s Hymn.” It’s that sense of ritual again: You get the feeling that if you combed through the catalogues of Animal Collective and its members, you’d find them pillaging every last variety of purpose-based and communal music, from campfire songs to churches to psychedelic noise. This evocation of ritual doesn’t always make the music better — at times, with Animal Collective, it feels like an annoying form of dress-up, as distant from actual devotional purpose as a kid in a plastic costume is from Spider-man. (That goes double in those instances when the lyrics turn as clumsy as they are earnest.) But it seems to me to explain something important about why indie fans have latched on to this music, and why indie acts keep imitating it, grabbing at all these handy ways to capture — or, occasionally, just shorthand — some sense of passion beyond the usual “we should start a band.”