Dusted Reviews

Animal Collective - Water Curses

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Animal Collective

Album: Water Curses

Label: Domino

Review date: May. 2, 2008

There’s a central conflict burrowed deep within the furrows of Animal Collective, one that isn’t confined to the EP Water Curses, but since that’s the object d’art in front of us, it will do as our entryway into the discussion. The problematic is this: Animal Collective’s striking melodies and experimentation within the pop-song format – pushing it into non-repeating areas, for example – obscures some deeper concerns with certain racist and classist ideas (all unintentional, I would believe).

Although Kandia Crazy Horse’s prose is a bit purple, her article “Race, Rock and the New Weird America” leveled a fantastic race critique at the whole freak-folk movement (the label, after-the-fact, combining such disparate musicians as Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, Animal Collective and others that otherwise had nothing to do with each other). Her argument draws on two major strands of hidden racism within New Weird America. The first, important in terms of evaluating the way in which the contribution of black musicians has been minimized by institutionalized racism (and to think this is any different because the aesthetic happens to be that of the indie set is to either be naïve or be willfully ignorant), explains how the freak folkies follow in the tradition of white musicians that minimize or ignore the black roots of the music they play while elevating white musicians in their tradition to prominent places. This is devastating in its own right, as the lily-white face of much of the indie and experimental scenes further perpetuates racist norms, as a number of wealthy or at least well-off white kids use their privilege to borrow freely from other cultures, fetishizing and colonializing other forms of music in a way that cannot be reciprocated (e.g. Vampire Weekend), but I think Crazy Horse’s second critique is deeper and cuts right to the heart of the hidden racism specifically within the music.

There is a tendency in a number of these musicians (Animal Collective being at the forefront) to fetishize nature in the way that, say, Devendra Banhart fetishizes Karen Dalton, saying of her, as Crazy Horse quotes, "...she’s got the most far-out, fucked up, amazing soul. She’s the most soulful singer in the universe." In other words, her music and the way she sings cannot just be a natural function of her life or her cultural or historic context, but somehow surpasses that, takes on a mystical quality, becomes unnatural and in doing so, transgresses the boundaries, becomes something strange or alien, wholly "Other." In doing this, Dalton is fetishized for who she is, and the agency for creating her art is taken away from her, replaced instead with this “far-out, fucked up” quality.

In a number of ways, I see the role of nature in Animal Collective’s music (in the Water Curses EP especially, and in the music of a number of these other musicians) as taking on an analogous quality. Nature becomes fetishized as a pure state, as the state of savages or the opposite of civilization, as wilderness, and in creating nature in such a way, it becomes something other than what humans are. It’s an escape, but an escape for a particular class of people. As environmental historian William Cronon wrote in his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” “The mythic frontier individualist was almost always masculine in gender: here, in the wilderness, a man could be a real man, the rugged individual he was meant to be before civilization sapped his energy and threatened his masculinity. … More often than not, men who felt this way came … from elite class backgrounds. The curious result was that frontier nostalgia became an important vehicle for expressing a peculiarly bourgeois form of antimodernism. The very men who most benefited from urban-industrial capitalism were among those who believed they must escape its debilitating effects.”

The way nature is portrayed in Animal Collective’s music is strongly tied to this bourgeois anti-modernity and because they have such influence within the American "underground," it further reinforces the idea of "Nature as Other," as something different than human, a conception that has contributed greatly to the current environmental crisis. Is this to blame Animal Collective for the conception? Hardly. Is it to call them racist for the depiction of "nature as pure" and by extension, the original native population (Here Comes the Indian?), thereby continuing the fetishization and deepening the gap between humans and the environment, or between whites and other ethnicities/races? Not really, or at least not overtly. However, it is to criticize them for picking up these ideas and running with them without giving them a second thought. It is to criticize them for using their economic privilege (I have no idea about their specific circumstances, but they all grew up together in Roland Park, home to a number of very elite private schools) to merely colonize rather than to critically reflect and create positively.

To return to the beginning, this isn’t to call out Animal Collective, or the latest manifestation of the concealed bourgeois conception of nature, Water Curses. There’s nothing in culture – indie or mainstream (the lines between the two are incredibly blurred anyway) – that points to this being wrong anyway. I do, however, think that, while aesthetically they are rather progressive (in indie-rock or pop terms), conceptually and symbolically there is a lot lacking, and that this conflict drives a lot of what is interesting in their music.

By Andrew Beckerman

Other Reviews of Animal Collective

Here Comes the Indian

Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished/Danse Manatee

Sung Tongs




Strawberry Jam

Merriweather Post Pavilion

Fall Be Kind

Centipede Hz

Read More

View all articles by Andrew Beckerman

Find out more about Domino

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.