If Animal Collective’s breakthrough hit, ‘My Girls’, hinted at the group’s Thoreauvian asceticism (“I don’t mean / To seem like I care about material things…I just want four walls / with adobe slabs for my girls”), their latest LP sees them emerge as fully-fledged environmentalists. The 2009’s song Frankie Knuckles-aping synth and audio samples from the Cassini orbiter now seem a clear precursor to Tangerine Reef: an electronics-led ‘visual tone poem’ about…coral reef.
Opening track and lead single ‘Hair Cutter’ achieves the underwater ambiance most effectively with aquatic pops and shimmers, weightless ascending lead lines and a reverberation that feels thick and close. Elsewhere, metallised, occasionally disappearing vocals and processed beat patterns maintain the sonic palette. The band have been hard at work with their machines.
Inevitably, the project is improved by the accompanying film from collaborators Coral Morphologic, who lend no small amount of atmosphere and profundity to the proceedings. Anemonae wobble along to the arpeggios, occasionally pulsating and excreting silky fluids, or else tickling the reverb trails into darkness. The colours and movements are nothing short of entrancing. Animal Collective’s second audiovisual album after 2010’s ODDSAC, Tangerine Reef must have been an easier sell to their label: psychedelic Attenborough with an Eno soundtrack.
Cut loose from the visuals, the album lacks impact and immediacy: melodies meander and the synthesizers never coalesce into anything approaching the emotive euphoria of their early work. As is often the case with concept albums, many songs seem to predate the concept, and feel a little shoehorned into the project as a result, although you can hardly blame them for feeling that the subject of coral reef might not harbour enough lyrical content for thirteen songs. Not in English, at least. Although you can imagine Bjork having a good crack at it. The Icelandic singer’s improvised approach is felt most keenly on ‘Hip Sponge’ where the frantic refrain of “the time is now” provides Tangerine Reef‘s most tuneful moment, and becomes a fitting mantra for an album that is both a celebration and an elegy for reef.
In 2018 artists tackling big environmental themes in their work with any degree of success – for it is a genre riddled with pretension and earnest platitudes – deserve to be applauded. Far from a mis-step, Tangerine Reef feels like worthy art for one of the world’s greatest living wonders, and its accompanying video will make for a stunning backdrop at Animal Collective live shows. Listen with the film.