Review: ‘Time Skiffs’ is Animal Collective’s psychedelic pop playground

The Baltimore band reins in their songwriting without compromising on experimentation on their latest album.


Animal Collective, an American experimental music band, at one of their concerts. Their latest album, “Time Skiffs,” is the first release to feature all four band members since 2016. (Photo by adrigu, via Wikimedia Commons)

Holden Lay, Staff Writer

Animal Collective’s latest album, “Time Skiffs,” is a joyous blend of exploratory impulses and jangling psychedelic pop. Their strongest album in years, it’s their first release to feature all four band members since 2016. In contrast to their recent work — which has ranged from documentary soundtracks to site-specific live improvisations and has met with mixed results — this is a more consistent record.

“Time Skiffs” bursts with over 45 minutes of Animal Collective’s most melodically driven and conventionally structured tracks since 2009’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion.” However, it’s far from a step back for the group, which has continually reinvented their sound. Some may understandably think of this record as a return to form, but it’s definitely not a retreat from experimentation and the impulse to play with a new sonic palette.

It’s hard to pick favorites when every track is as strong as it is. The opening duo of “Dragon Slayer” and “Car Keys” are a dub-influenced statement of purpose establishing the playful lyricism and jaunty maximalism that makes this album such a fun listen. “Prester John” — which dropped as the album’s first single in October — has aged to perfection. It’s easily one of the most conventional songs Animal Collective has ever put out. In my opinion, it’s also one of the best. Warping their off-kilter soundscapes into a pop mold such as this yields irresistible results — this track still feels fresh every time I hear it.

And yet, “Prester John” is followed by an even better song: “Strung with Everything” is a blaring, seven-minute, psychedelic opus that is the closest the band has come to their classic sound since their 2007 album “Strawberry Jam.” I hadn’t realized how much I missed Avey Tare’s crackling, nearly screamed vocals until I heard them here. Declaring “Let’s say tonight, just you and me / And watch the sky fall into pieces,” Tare’s voice intermingles with a piercing Brian Wilson-esque piano and lovingly sloppy harmony. Panda Bear’s live drums on this — and nearly every track — sound loose and unproduced, like nothing I’ve heard from the group.

“Strung with Everything” is all that I want out of an Animal Collective song, and it blows me away every time. It’s a throwback that’s sure to restore faith in the band’s songwriting for anyone who’s been turned off by their recent work, but it’s also a perfect encapsulation of this record as a whole. The song pushes the most beloved elements of the band’s sound in an urgent new direction, making it an instant personal favorite.

The beautiful closing track, “Royal and Desire,” sounds almost unrecognizable for the band. Its jazzy, spaced-out, folkish sound feels closer to the recent work of Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes than anything Animal Collective has ever done before. The song closes out the record with a blistering saxophone solo. Animal Collective seems intent on making it known that while their songwriting is as strong as ever, they’re still pushing their sound in unexpected directions.

When I first heard Animal Collective’s new material in 2019, it was at one of their concerts and the music was still in its early form. In the three years since, the band reworked the songs from winding, bass-forward, jazzy atmospheres to catchy and lyrical pop soundscapes. Returning to their “Merriweather”-era tactic of workshopping new tracks live has given this material a raw feeling that was sorely missing from 2016’s muddled album “Painting With.”

These songs might bring the band back to headlining festivals like they did following the release of crossover-hit “Merriweather Post Pavilion.” The balance they maintain between auditory freakout and psychedelic pop on this record is staggeringly successful. Fans bemoaning their experimental releases are going to love the return of their eclectic and fun sides. New listeners might find “Time Skiffs” a great entryway to the band’s intimidating and unpredictable catalog. 

“Time Skiffs” has something for everyone. It is a summation of the band’s vast work and a promising indication of their new direction. To me, it’s a reassuring reminder of the thrilling and unpredictable energy that Animal Collective can conjure at the height of their power.

Contact Holden Lay at [email protected].