80 — [Rating Scale]
In a recent interview with Spin, Dave Portner (aka Avey Tare) was asked how Down There was different from his work with Animal Collective. He responded with coyness worthy of Dylan: “It’s easiest to say there’s something about Down There that makes it more like Down There than anything AC has done.” Thanks for clearing things up, Dave. Statements of the obvious aside, the answer is technically accurate. Down There is a dark tangent broken off from the acoustic experimentation of Animal Collective’s early albums. Portner, being the primary artistic force behind the band, can’t escape certain elements of Animal Collective’s singular sound. Yet taken as a whole, Down There is different kind of beast.
The last we heard from Portner was the terrific Animal Collective EP, Fall Be Kind, which was an autumnal response to the Day-Glo summertime exuberance of Merriweather Post Pavilion. The EP was a shift in tone – complete with a spirited pan-flute jig and a Grateful Dead sample – but it kept with the pop continuity that began with Feels. Down There, Portner’s first solo album, is a retreat from Animal Collective’s catchier forays. Whereas bandmate Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) explored his (Brian) Wilsonian side on his third and most-recent solo album, Person Pitch, Portner is using Down There as an outlet for his more outré and abrasive tendencies.
Down There’s opening track, “Laughing Hieroglyphics,” begins as spacey jazz and devolves into a sonic collage of corn-popping-in-a-kettle percussion and swirling electronic noise, played backwards, forwards, and sideways. Uncomfy in Nautica? You bet. “Laughing Hieroglyphics” is followed by the equally disorienting “3 Umbrellas,” which features loud, processed guitar strumming over a pretty melody that’s nearly lost in the cacophony. Any hope that Down There would be Avey Tare’s version of Person Pitch is laid to rest here.
But just when you think Down There is going to be the inscrutable ejaculation of an artist eager to fuck with his fans, everything suddenly comes into focus. (Remember that album Portner recorded with his wife, where every song was played backwards? Me neither.) “Oliver Twist” is a riot, and given the right dance floor, an out-and-out stomper. The twin acoustic instrumentals “Glass Bottom Boat” and “Ghost of Books” are gentle and inviting, both reminiscent of Sung Tongs’ “The Softest Voice.” “Cemeteries” sounds like a séance at Wayne Coyne’s house, with a choir of the living and dead singing backup. If it weren’t for Portner’s distorted vocals, the driving mid-tempo “Heads Hammock” could be a radio staple. Well, a satellite radio staple. On the indie channel.
Down There concludes with its two best songs. “Heather in the Hospital,” a mournful and gorgeous dirge, was inspired by Portner’s sister, who battled a rare form of cancer (she survived). It’s profoundly moving, even if you don’t know the story behind the song. The warm extended tones that fill the song’s first half give way to synthesized harp arpeggios, like the transition music for a dream sequence, suggesting the stupefaction that accompanies repeated hospital visits and the potential loss of a loved one. “Lucky 1” is closest to being an Animal Collective song, which is probably why it was selected as the album’s first single. Portner sings, throat open, over a guttural electronic chug: “There have been days you feel so sad/ Glad you could feel better shape/ Today you like the lucky one!” “Lucky 1” is about how good news makes the bad instantly irrelevant. Though “Heather in the Hospital” is named after his sister, “Lucky 1” is dedicated to her.
If you’re still reading this review, it probably means you’re a diehard Animal Collective fan. Which also means you’re going to buy (or, god forbid, illegally download) Down There anyway. So this summation is for you: Down There is a strange, disjointed mess. You’ll love it.