When I first started listening to music, I wasn’t sure if I liked indie rock. I had a preconceived notion of indie rock as a staid, tasteful genre, full of functional guitar playing and thoughtful bearded men who looked like my middle school guidance counselor. This was, of course, quite stupid, and Animal Collective showed me why. Through them, I learned that indie rock could be as strange and unpredictable as the Kate Bush albums I cherished. Psychedelic folk ditties could end with harmonized meowing; banshee shrieks could make for a thrilling hook; a joyous indie pop rave-up could be about providing a decent house for your wife and kids. If, as critics sometimes sniffed, Animal Collective had a Peter Pan complex, they made for excellent guides to Neverland.
All this is to say that I will always be at least a little bit excited for new Animal Collective music. It’s true that the 2010s were a bit of a comedown: after their critical and commercial peak with 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, the band seemed content to fool around and jam at live shows. Their follow-up, 2012’s Centipede Hz, was messy and unfocused; four years later, there was the chirpy, insubstantial Painting With. I didn’t mind so much. Very few bands are perfect forever, and there will always be at least a few pleasures to mine from their later work.
It remains to be seen if the upcoming Time Skiffs is Animal Collective’s “best since MPP.” (See also: “Bowie’s best since Scary Monsters”, “Weezer’s best since Pinkerton”, etc.) But “Prester John” is certainly a promising sign of what’s to come. Animal Collective have performed some iteration of this song at their live shows before, and you can tell just from listening to it. They sound comfortable here, setting aside the fussy vocal interplay of Painting With and settling into a groove.
Lyrics are usually secondary on an Animal Collective album, favoring psychedelic imagery that occasionally disarms you with a line packed with resonance: “Sometimes I can’t find my good habits”, “I’m only all I see sometimes”, “Don’t cool off, I like your warmth.” The lyrics of “Prester John” obliquely gesture towards climate disaster, but for me the line that sticks out is “Was a good long run/With a world of good intentions by it.” And that’s just it, isn’t it? No one thinks of themselves as a Captain Planet villain, but that doesn’t mean their hands are clean.
Still, this is Animal Collective, which means the focus is on hooks and textures. “Prester John” has plenty: mysterious dubby atmospherics, bright gleaming keys that flash in blue and white, stirring hooks circling over the music again and again. It sounds like a lot of things: a jam band performing underwater, “Dancing in the Moonlight” playing from the back of a cave, an elliptical message from elsewhere. But mostly, it sounds like a band in its element for the first time in a while.