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Animal Collective discover a renewed sense of harmony on ‘Time Skiffs’

In 2009, Animal Collective released “My Girls,” a euphoric slice of experimental pop with a chorus that felt like a rallying cry for a generation of maturing (and financially insecure) millennials:

I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things like a social status / I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls.

“It was really just my desire on a basic level to own my own place and kind of provide a safe house for my family and the people I care about,” Noah Lennox — the singer and multi-instrumentalist also known as Panda Bear — explained at the time. “I thought that was at once a kind of weird materialistic thing but at the same time a noble thing.”

The song was an unlikely hit, becoming so ubiquitous that Beyoncé́ “accidentally” interpolated the lyrics on her seminal album “Lemonade.”

Twelve years later, now well into their second decade as a group, the members of Animal Collective have grown into elder statesmen of indie rock, deconstructing the genre’s increasingly porous borders while serving up dense reflections on time, memory, the environmental crisis, and other such weighty and existential themes that occupy the millennial mind.

“Time Skiffs,” the group’s 11th studio album and their first full-length project in six years, contains all the elements that Animal Collective fans have to come to expect: ornate vocal harmonies, dense lyricism, and a genre-bending patchwork of clamorous psychedelic rock, freak folk and experimental pop. Musically, it’s their most accessible and gratifying project since “My Girls” and the album “Merriweather Post Pavilion” launched the group into the upper echelon of indie stardom in the late aughts.

It’s also the band’s first studio album to feature all four members — Deakin (Josh Dibb), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Avey Tare (Dave Portner) and Geologist (Brian Weitz) — since 2012’s “Centipede Hz.”

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“I’m really excited about it,” Dibb told the Star in a video call while driving through his hometown of Baltimore last month. “I feel like it’s kind of a convergence of a lot of energies from the four of us that I think are really potent and powerful.”

This rekindled synergy is perhaps most apparent on the album’s kaleidoscopic lead single “Prester John,” which features some of the most gorgeous vocal harmonies in the group’s history.

“There’s an openness within us and a way of interrelating, especially vocally,” said Dibb, who sings and plays various instruments on the album. “We’ve never had a record where me, Dave and Noah are all singing together as much. It gives really special energy, the interplay and interactions of our voices together.”

In many ways, the nine tracks on “Time Skiffs” feel like the culmination of all the sounds and styles that Animal Collective has explored over its long and varied career. They also act as a time warp, or a way of revisiting the past.

The album’s title refers to “the idea of the songs being little like boats or vessels that are transported — of music as this thing that kind of allows you to time travel in a way,” Lennox recently explained to Rolling Stone.

“Music can be both a time capsule for something that’s passed, but something that is still present in the present,” Dibb told the Star, esoterically.

Animal Collective formed way back in 2003, when Dibb, Lennox, Portner and Weitz were teenagers. From the very start, they sought to break the mould of the traditional rock band.

“We really didn’t want to start a band where it was just like: you’re the lead singer, I’m the bass player, you’re the drummer and this is what it always sounds like,” Dibb explained. “We wanted to create this new world of possibility for ourselves.”

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Animal Collective, from left to right: Deakin (Josh Dibb), Avey Tare (David Portner), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and Geologist (Brian Weitz)

In the subsequent two decades, Animal Collective recorded a constant stream of new music under various lineup configurations, always featuring some combination of the four members, all of whom sing and play a variety of instruments. Panda Bear, Avey Tare and Deakin have all released solo albums, which exist within the orbit of the extended Animal Collective musical universe.

And as the lineup shifted, so did the band’s sound: the twangy guitars that coloured 2004’s “Sung Tongs” were nowhere to be found on 2009’s “Merriweather,” which was primarily recorded using samplers. The clanky percussion that pervaded 2007’s “Strawberry Jam” is conspicuously absent from the group’s more recent work, such as 2018’s audiovisual album “Tangerine Reef” or 2020s muted “Bridge to Quiet” EP.

“Time Skiffs,” on the other hand, contains a bit of everything. “Strung With Everything,” the album’s seven-minute centrepiece, opens with a dreamy slide guitar floating above ambient sound, before ascending into a rockabilly crescendo that pits Avey Tare’s yelping vocals against Panda Bear’s jazz-inflected percussion.

“It’s a melting pot,” Dibb said. “As unified as I think the four of us are, we’re also all really different. And I think that as we’ve gotten older, we’ve gotten better and better at sort of seeing the value (in our differences) and sort of celebrating all of that.

“This record felt to me like a space where all of us were working to both have really clear ideas that unified us around certain structures or certain lanes that we picked as a group but, at the same time, like left a lot of space for everybody’s kind of individual energies to come into it.”

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The genesis of “Time Skiffs” traces back to 2018, when the group started to sketch out some songs on the heels of a music residency in New Orleans.

Due to the pandemic, the album was recorded and mixed completely remotely, with the band spread between Baltimore, Md., Washington, D.C., Asheville, N.C. and Lisbon, Portugal. But despite the separation and the headaches, Dibb says the creative process offered a vital path through difficult times.

“It remarkably amplified my sense of gratitude,” he said, swallowing back emotion. “I’m literally almost choking up as I’m saying this but, probably more than almost any time, music has saved my life over the last couple of years.

“I think amongst the four of us, especially, there was a lot of really remarkable calm through all of it. I mean, I think we all were kind of freaking out and I think I’ll continue to feel a lot of uncertainty, you know? There’s a constant sense of like, is this going to get ripped away? And I think that being able to continue to reach out to each other and to find solutions for how to continue to create this music and create these energies, I don’t know where I’d be if it hadn’t happened.

“(Making music) gave us a profound place of solace and support and expression. And it feels more urgent than maybe it’s ever felt.”

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