The first CD I purchased with my own money was "Achtung Baby" by U2. I was 13. I had heard "One" and "Mysterious Ways" on the school bus radio and so was excited when I finally had the album containing those songs in my prepubescent hands. When I got home from the Best Buy in Topeka, I jammed the CD into my parents' stereo and prepared my ears for sonic nirvana.
Once there, a strange thing happened. The noises coming out of the speakers were indecipherable to me; I couldn't make out a thing. My face fell as I walked into the kitchen to tell my mother that I'd made a huge mistake.
Spending money on "Achtung Baby" was not a mistake, of course. In fact, I still count it among my favorite albums. It did teach me a lesson -- my 13-year-old brain was not capable of deciding whether a record is good after one listen. That hasn't changed. Try as I might, I can't tell much about an album during its first playback.
With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to journal my efforts to grasp something new. First, though, I needed an album I thought would be worth my time. Animal Collective's new disc, "Merriwether Post Pavilion" (MPP from here) fit the bill. Based on my affection for their 2007 release, "Strawberry Jam," I was excited about the prospect of new material. Once that hurdle was cleared, I needed only $12 to buy the CD, a little time and a lot of patience.
It used to be that I had specific criteria that determined whether I would buy a particular CD: It took three good songs before I would fork over any money. For example, in 1993, I heard "Ordinary World" by Duran Duran and started paying attention. Next was "Come Undone." My interest was piqued further. When "Too Much Information" hit the radio, I packed myself into my silver 1985 Chevy Celebrity (the extra-cool station wagon version) and drove into the city to buy the album.
As the years went by, the criteria dropped to two good songs, then to one, before finally settling in its current state, which is that if I've heard the band's name, seen it on a telephone pole, or imagined it as a possible word combination, I can probably convince myself to buy their album.
This state of mind has been good for my collection, but it has made the process of listening more difficult. It used to be that I had anchors -- songs I knew I liked and that I could look forward to hearing. For example, on Oasis' "What's The Story Morning Glory?" it was "Wonderwall" and "Champagne Supernova." On Pearl Jam's "Ten," it was "Evenflow" and "Jeremy."
Thus, in some ways -- even though I've heard thousands of new songs -- my task with Animal Collective was even harder. Add in the fact that their music is sometimes described as "experimental" and it was clear that this would be a challenge.
Listen 1: I kind of like that one song.
I had purposely avoided listening to anything Animal Collective-related before digging in. So there was no "Wonderwall" waiting for me. It was all new, which is why my notes on that first listen are sparse and nearly unintelligible.
Song 1: "Woof." Song 2: "Eudora kids -- Skateboards and guns. I like." Song 3: "Fourth-grade chorus -- all sopranos." Song 4. (blank) Song 5. "Eighties." Songs 6-11: "All same."
I had known I was going to struggle through the first listen, but that didn't stop me from being disappointed. I could tell I would eventually like the second song. That was the end of the good news. The first song sounded awful -- hence the "Woof" comment. The third song sounded like it was being performed by a squadron of eunuchs banging on cymbals, except I wasn't that creative when I made notes -- hence the fourth-grade chorus comment. From there, I couldn't discern much.
(Side note: I wrote "skateboards and guns" because I was driving through the town of Eudora, Kan., at the time and saw two groups of kids -- one with skateboards, one with rifles. It was an interesting contrast, but it had nothing to do with Animal Collective.)
Listens 2 and 3: This is the worst album I've ever heard.
I was still enjoying the second song, but had written the following after listen No. 3: "Never going to like this album" and "Repetitive, boring, want to quit listening."
It wasn't looking good for MPP.
Listen 4: OK, this album has something going on, but I think the dudes who made it took themselves a little too seriously.
I could feel familiarity lurking around the corner, but I was growing frustrated with my inability to connect with the music. I had decided that the songs were nothing more than a bunch of extended melodies, a sentiment with which I can still agree. I also noted, "Maybe trying too hard?"
Listen 5: There's hope, but this will be lucky to make my top 250.
I listened to the album while working out. MPP is not workout music, but I did have some breakthroughs. I was sure I liked songs Nos. 2, 4 and 5, and No. 7 was growing on me. Finally, some anchor points. My cold, Animal Collective-hating heart was thawing.
Listen 6: Light at the end of the tunnel?
I had time to give the album a real listen: I put in the CD, turned the volume dial to "Wall-shaking," and lay down in bed, ready to pay attention to nothing but the music.
I wrote that the vocals on Song 2, "My Girls," sounded like they were done by the Beach Boys. Song 3 annoyed me; the line "Will it be just like they're dreaming?" gets repeated approximately 63,000 times. I noticed harmonizing in Song 4, "Summertime Clothes." I picked up on a beat I like in Song 5, "Daily Routine," and decided I liked it, despite the high-pitched harpsichord at the beginning of the song. (Harpsichord is a guess, I should note.)
By Song 6, I was dozing off, which is actually a good sign. It means the album was becoming familiar. I woke up in time for the repetition of what I thought was "lying in a coma," but which is actually, "lion in a coma," which I assume to be the case only because that's the name of the song.
The music was making me feel pleasant. Something was happening.
Listen 7: Acceptance.
After my seventh listen, I wrote only this: "I think I'm starting to like it."
Seven listens isn't enough to fully comprehend an album, especially one as far-out as MPP. But I'm afraid if I listen anymore, I'll start to hate Animal Collective only because there is a limit to how many times I can hear a record in a few days.
MPP is a fun album, but the songs are too long. Generally, they are fairly simple tunes that borrow from 1950s- and '60s-era sensibilities, done with a psychedelic, we-might-be-taking-LSD-while-we-do-this style. Because the songs are so simple, it would be nice if they were shorter. Six of the 11 tracks on the album go past the five-minute mark. Usually, there isn't enough there to warrant five-minute songs.
But that's not to say it's not a pleasurable listen. It is. These guys can sing -- it's not bad to be compared to the Beach Boys. And they create interesting, dare I say, soundscapes. Really, Animal Collective is an instrumental band. They do sing, of course, but their voices are used more like instruments than as story-telling machines. To my ears, MPP is background music. Cool, creative, fun background music, but background music nonetheless.
After I wrote the framework of this column, I checked metacritic.com for reviews of MPP. It received an 89, meaning that it is one of the best-received albums in recent history. Some of that acclaim is probably because of indie music, feeding-frenzy syndrome -- if someone says it's genius-level work, everyone else is afraid to dissent for fear of being labeled uncool.
But don't take their word for it. Don't take my word for it. Go to the Animal Collective Web site, listen and decide for yourself. It could be that I haven't even cracked the surface of MPP and that you'll discover things I'm incapable of grasping. There's only one way to find out: Listen.
I'll keep doing the same. I don't think "Merriwether Post Pavilion" is ever going to topple "Achtung Baby" from my personal top 10, but just like with that album, I'm glad I didn't give up after the first listen.
Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams -- the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. He can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley and at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, now in paperback, "Can I Keep My Jersey?" can be found here. With his brother, he also co-hosts an online radio show, "Off Topic with Matt and Paul Shirley."