Thursday, December 31, 2015

Song of the Day #250 - Animal Collective - Penny Dreadfuls

When does this bus leave?

Assuming I didn't forget to post it (I'm writing this back on the 28th) this should be the final Song of the Day of the year, so let's go out like we did last year with a song from the sublime AnCo debut album, Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished. It again might take the award for "old album I started listening to way more this year", like, even more than I did last year. It just keeps on giving.

This track, and the following "Chocolate Girl", form the melodic heart of the album... STGSTV has a reputation for being a bit difficult to approach with all the noisy and chaotic elements, but on those tracks, they etch out a smooth and simple tender space, one that they perhaps never returned to so wholeheartedly, only rarely putting a toe in on tracks like "Winter's Love" and "Banshee Beat" (not coincidentally some of their best tracks ever). There's something so... economical about the more melodic tracks of STGSTV... maybe precious is a better word? Something very innocent, and small... almost scared? Scared or sacred? I'm not sure. It's very difficult to get into words.

I think the fact that it was written by Avey when he was only 16 years old (according to Wikipedia), and recorded when he was only 20, as part of a project that he intended to be his first foray into the wider world of music, is important. It's important to try to remember what that was like for them. I'd love to talk about the whole album in some considerable depth some other time (along with like 1000 other albums, you know how it is).

The way the shimmering bells come in after the abrasive chaotic untitled track is sublime... I think if you can't appreciate that contrast, you might never come to like this album, which would be unfortunate but... I really think most people could enjoy it. And then the way that wonderful piano line emerges from the bells, it's like... near the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Ah yeah, see, it's hard to write about this stuff. "Piano wandering from a staticky haze", that's the aesthetic, it's fantastic.

The story Avey paints is a simple narrative of an altercation on I think the bus ride to school... it's told through a child's perspective, and has this perfect childlike mix of blank observation, and direct quoting, weird panicked distortion, innocent philosophizing... it really feels like a kid telling you a story. It has a much more focused narrative arc than many AnCo songs, but much of it is sort of static description, setting the scene of the bus and its inhabitants. When we move into the fight, it feels as sudden and awkward as it would be in real life. The narrator's focus on his comic book being grabbed, the introduction of Sarah (the boy's mother?)... it's one of those things that feels small and incidental, not a big deal, but ends up with the potential to make a big impact in a kid's life. Like when there's some big emotional blowout in someone's life, and you dig into it and really try to figure out where it all started from, it often is a story just as innocent as this. And thus the smallest of details in it become extremely powerful and significant.

You really believe it, cause you can hear it in Avey's voice. The beginning is sort of half-sung, half-whispered, very difficult to follow if you don't have the lyrics with you, operating in a really delicate space where you feel the events are sorta being coaxed out of him. The big "awoooo"s, marking the transition between the description of the bus and the description of the fight, backed by the reintroduction of powered-up piano chords, feel lost in time... you're unsure at what "time" the sounds are coming from... is it the kid on the bus? Avey at 16, remembering them? At 20, recording the song? But they also feel like they could somehow be from the future, they have a haunting sort of energy that makes you believe...

Same with when he sings in the voice of others - his sudden boldness in "Creeps, I'll take you all!" always stuns me, and the way he builds up in the final lines - "When the story's mine I think I'll tell it different" is overwhelming, in both meaning and delivery - into the sudden dropoff of desperate, tender, exhausted, sadness: "When does this bus leave?". The ability to make that sort of emotional transition, and for both sides to feel completely "natural" in the greater sonic "landscape" of the song, is one of the things that makes this album so special. Right after, we get something even more special for the album, that indescribable "ripping" sort of sound, around 7:30. I think these sorts of effects, usually done in Animal Collective songs (The start of Crumbling Land is another good example) are the closest I get to "ASMR". Really magical music.

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