Tuesday, November 15, 2022

(repost) Epilogue on Animal Collective's "Time Skiffs"

"Bend to the moment / feel no thought / listen to the sound of people hoping / that in the moment there will be bliss / a cause for the moment to be healing"

Back to "We Go Back," today, I was listening to Animal Collective's excellent album Time Skiffs, released earlier this year, while driving in the dark against a grey sky and what the midwest affectionately calls "wintery mix" which is what the weather was like when this album was released earlier this year. Time flies, to be trite. The annual ritual of ranking the year's music releases is looking to present me with an interesting challenge. First of all, my family changed so much this year: we moved, we got new jobs, we got a new job, and our baby (born in November 2021) has been here for it all. That stuff - from nighttime feedings, house hunting, campus-visits - dramatically impacted my usual music listening habits. The second reason is that it seems like all my favorite bands released incredible new music this year, which really gums up the works for new stuff. And what's worse, the move (literally at the halfway point of the year) really separates Jan-June releases from June-November. Early-year releases always need a refresher, but this year was different.

This is to say, when I put on Time Skiffs it was so easy to bend to the moment, to find bliss, even healing in relearning these amazing songs. In "Car Keys" Panda Bear sings "how are we doin' now?"

We're doing good, is the short answer. In the post that follows, originally written in March of this year, there's a lot of anxiety expressed about the world, about becoming a parent. Now Ben is one! and he's great! and healthy! and hilarious! Tonight, he fell asleep while listening to my favorite song on the album, "Royal & Desire." It was a small thing, a tender moment. Nothing, really. One moment his eyes open, searching the ceiling, my face, the room, for familiar shapes. The next, closed. During both moments I'm humming to him along with the song, rubbing his back, rocking him.

In "Passer-by" Avey Tare sings "thanked a passer-by / for pointing out a thing / I probably would have missed"

Its these small moments that make the year. Time Skiffs, and by extension all the (softer) music I managed to listen to and enjoy this year, help to point out these moments. Add something to their importance and their permanence. I'm looking forward to rediscovering this album and "Royal & Desire" again, the passer-by reminding me once again, of what Benjamin was like in November 2022, one year after he was born, falling asleep while listening to a song he and I both seem to love.

Part 1: We Go Back
“over and over our song on my brain / I go back / we go back and I play it again / how far we go back is how forward / we’ll go”

For one sublime week in October 2019, Animal Collective played a brief run of shows in the Southwestern United States. Returning to their pre-Painting With form, Panda Bear, Avey Tare, Geologist, and Deakin debuted new jams, focusing their sets around unfamiliar, quizzically pre-formed ideas.  In fact, less than half of the songs played in their average setlists were old cuts, including a return of “For Reverend Green” (which they hadn’t played since 2006 when previewing Strawberry Jams) and Merriweather Post Pavilion-era favorites like “On a Highway” and “No More Runnin.”

“Trickle of a moment down my life / history in motion” 

In early 2018, 3/4s of the band performed two legendary sets at the Music Box Village in New Orleans, debuting entirely new sets of “site specific music” that took advantage of the unique venue-as-instrument space in Louisiana.

Thanks to the fastidious tapers and Animal Collective’s fan-friendly approach to bootlegs, the Music Box shows and the 2019 tour was thoroughly documented. Songs like “Royal and Desire” and “Prester John” had four years of life as mp3s before Time Skiffs’s triumphant release. I’ll never, for example, call “We Go Back” anything but its proper name: “Boulder” 

Going into 2020, these bootlegs – moments of life – became a real history in motion for a band too far out of reach. I played all six of the 2019 tour bootlegs obsessively as the winter snow fell, as the holiday came and went, as the new year began. Surely, these songs would find life in a studio. Surely, the mystery of the Music Box songs would chew up entire sides of vinyl in the months, if not weeks to come!
I couldn’t wait:

“in the moment there will be bliss / a cause for the moment to be healing / and to begin.”

Part Two: Prester John
“It’s the end of this / it’s the end of havin’ to worry ‘bout it”

Global pandemic. What can you say that’s already been said? One day I’m celebrating my 1-year wedding anniversary and the next day my wife and I are frantically canceling plans, classes, and figuring out how to work with our students from home. Surely this won’t last.

“treating every day / as an image of a moment that’s passed”

We’ve been working from home for nearly four months. “Bridge to Quiet” is an intentionally small affair from Animal Collective, and its great, but it isn’t any of the songs floating around from the years past. Its all new, and its all exciting, but it doesn’t do much to close the monotony of quarantine living.

Its hard to blame Animal Collective, its four members living far apart (even oceans, in Panda Bear’s case) you can feel the wind being sucked out of a shared lung. “Prester John is breaking down / his heart is breaking down.”

Maybe we’ll get some songs in the fall?
“Treating every day / as an image of a moment’s that’s passed”

What’s the moment passing? Us? Or the nightmare pandemic?

Part Three: Strung With Everything
“Don’t peek, it won’t last that long, or rarely / its really new every day”

Among Animal Collective fans, there is nothing scarier than demoitis. Noun: a condition of spending too much time with well-documented tour bootlegs. Couple the fact that you can find a recording from just about every AnCo live show in the world with the fact that AnCo usually plays new materials before it comes out with the fact that Domino Records (Animal Collective’s label) will announce an album like five months before release and you’ve got the perfect storm conditions for burning yourself out on the drip-feeding of singles (“Prester John” first, way early, then “Walker” and “Strung With Everything” much closer to the release) and falling victim to the dreaded demoitis.

“there’s a natural clicking / that can be heard in the kinks / you need to forget the trouble-maker”
I made it a religious affair to spend time with the tour boots, shit, the 2019 material was hands down what I listened to the most in 2020. These are messy and chaotic – both the wide gulf of recording quality and the band themselves. Warts and all you can hear the kinks, but you can also hear the brilliance of these songs floating somewhere in the mix in megaupload files and dot zip folders of mp3s.

The week before Time Skiffs came out I wanted to see how strung together everything really was, so I fired up the Music Box boots, then the 2019 tour boots, and then the 2021 tour boots. Me and the baby, up at all hours, had a little nightly ritual: play a show and a half, pausing only for diaper changes and warming up bottles:
“let’s say tonight you and me / we’ll watch the sky fall into pieces”

How good are these songs, floating against the warmth of a desert night in Big Sur two years before Ben was even an idea?
“for a moment imagine strings / holding the trees from falling down”

My world is turned upside down. You’re going to be a father, my wife says. (Among other things) Music is the tie that keeps me earthbound.
“You know I would not be afraid / with your head against my shoulder”

Baby, strapped to my chest in his little carrier lets out a snore, bored of the conceit of this section of this blog post.
“And even though all hearts are strange / we’re all strung with everything”

It turns out like writing, or a baby, or an album, it takes some time, and many lose ends, to come together to make something perfect. A dissertation, Benjamin, or Time Skiffs (note: these three things are not of equal importance).

After two years of such poor miserable distance, how wonderful to be bound to such tangible things? To be so firmly connected. Yes: “we’re all strung with everything.”

Part Four: Cherokee
“late for its arrival / my mind’s begun to find / early peculiarities of how it defines time”

Time Skiffs was kind of two years old the day it came out, but it was also four years old, and it was also a newborn package of songs. Kind of late, but perfectly on time, and perfectly capturing the weird passage of time since a few months after those October 2019 shows.

I note, a little disappointed, the auto tune on Avey Tare’s voice from “Cherokee” is gone from the album.

But that’s just about my only disappointment in the rapturous release of Time Skiffs. As it comes to a close after my first real listen, Deakin’s haunting voice in the stunning “Royal and Desire” (which is, I’m convinced, their second best song – guess the first) I keep hearing a few lines: “song shuts my eyes / reminds me of my fight / to know the way / the way to love like a child.”

I don’t know how my child will love, but at this moment in the time skiff’s journey up life’s river, I know how I love my child. Uncomplicated, uncompromising. Permanent. When two years pass I imagine I feel more strongly about that than I could possibly imagine. But will I love this album in 2024, five years after first hearing its songs? 

“And we’ll always come ‘round / ‘round / ‘round ‘round / ‘round ‘round…” Deakin echoes as Time Skiffs slowly slinks away. I turn the record over and press play again. Round and round again, patient enough for the delayed gratification of this record, but still impatient with a child’s giddy love, to hear more, to see more, to watch something exciting grow right before your eyes. While my child grows right before my own.

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