Recorded along the Amazon River, the four-song EP features just Avey Tare and Geologist in a return to the hazy, patiently paced, and largely improvised records of their early days.
Animal Collective are an institution founded on instability, exemplified by fluid membership, soluble song structures, and abrupt album-to-album aesthetic breaks. But throughout their metamorphic history, their best music has always immersed you in the time and place in which it was created. Campfire Songs from 2003 is the most obvious example (even though, technically, it was an album of porch songs). But ambience also plays a crucial “fifth Beatle” role on Sung Tongs (whose hermetic home-recordings are enhanced by field recordings collected at Avey Tare’s local deli) and even Strawberry Jam (whose dry, chiseled sonics reflect its arid Arizona recording locale). If anything has changed for Animal Collective, it’s that their more manic recent records sound less like the product of their source environment and more like they’re adapting to the band’s current one—the large concert halls and festival stages they now call home.
On the one hand, Meeting of the Waters represents another tangential detour on Animal Collective’s career path. It’s their first record to feature only Avey Tare and Geologist, and the absence of AC perennial Panda Bear may explain why it was initially issued as a Record Store Day exclusive before quietly appearing on streaming services last week. But this four-song mini-album also represents a full-circle move for the group, a return to making the sort of hazy, patiently paced, and largely improvised records where the background setting plays a starring role.
In essence, Meeting of the Waters takes Campfire Songs’ off-the-cuff, on-the-spot ethos and exports it to a Brazilian rainforest: Avey and Geologist recorded it along the Amazon River as part of a Viceland documentary series, Earth Works, that explores the environmental degradation in the region. More than just provide Geologist with a hissing, humming backdrop off which he can bounce his dubbed-out sonics, the secluded tropical setting encourages Avey to embrace an unadorned, plainspoken delivery that contrasts sharply with his usual spastic, pitch-shifting hollers. As such, Meeting of the Waters doesn’t yield any of the ecstatic highs we’ve come to expect from an Animal Collective record; rather, Avey calmly dispenses his words as if he’s taking great care not to upset the natural order of his surroundings. On the record’s miasmic 13-minute opener, “Blue Noses,” he’s practically singing in 16 rpm, as he extols the virtues of sunlight, fresh air, and wild magnolias atop slow-motion acoustic strums that threaten to dissolve into the song’s aqueous ether. The state of zen reverie is interrupted only by the frequent pitter-patter of footsteps.
But if “Blue Noses” is precisely sort of blissed-out psych-folk meditation you’d expect a couple of Deadheads to come up with after they’re dropped in the jungle without any plan or pressures, other songs bear the more introspective effects of isolating yourself in a remote place far from home. “Man of Oil”—the only track here you could imagine the current iteration of Animal Collective fleshing out into a more robust pop song—threads its acoustic melody with vocal snippets of a woman speaking in an indeterminate language, like the indecipherable conversation happening in a dream you can’t quite recall in the morning. But more than just a random detail, her enigmatic voice brings a hazy melancholy to intimate lines like “I find it so hard to tell you/ I’m afraid to forget the smell of you.”
In moments like these, Meeting of the Waters makes for a nice complement to part-time AC participant Deakin’s 2016 release Sleep Cycle, another record that fused field-recording scenery with sobering self-reflection. And that pensive quality is most pronounced on “Selection of a Place (Rio Negro Version),” a lo-fi love song that treats a romantic embrace as a security-blanket against a world that overburdens us with work, stress, and smartphone addiction. (“I’m right beside you,” Avey sings, “not thinking about … little letters on my phone.”) Avey and Geologist may have gone down to the Amazon to help spread awareness of rainforest depletion, but the songs on Meeting of the Waters assert that humanity’s fate is equally dependent on our own psychic preservation. The album’s primitive presentation serves to remind us just how fragile our existence truly is: As Avey’s last strums cede to an encroaching thundercloud of white noise, we’re subjected to the unsettling sound of paradise lost.