Avey Tare departs from Animal Collective sound

Chris Letso

After Animal Collective flirted with mainstream success upon the release of 2009’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” it was easy to imagine the band members settling into the comfortable zone of complacency that is so often inhabited by indie bands that achieve a sizeable audience. 

Luckily, Avey Tare (a.k.a. David Portner), Animal Collective’s primary singer and songwriter, is not that type of artist. Instead, on his first official solo album, “Down There,” Portner has created a dark, mucky and completely unique collection of songs. It’s the type of music that’s best heard in pitch-black surroundings on headphones, as it does not just add flourishes to your present environment, but creates its own. 

Each track on “Down There” possesses a completely different atmosphere from the one before it, which not only makes for an engaging and surprising first listen, but is also a good indicator of its future replay value. No sound or instrumental texture is repeated once from song to song, save for some of the warbling effects on the interspersed samples of dialogue. At the start of the album, “Laughing Hieroglyphic” is driven by an accordion-like sound, followed by the Steve Reich-esque pulses of “3 Umbrellas” and the deep, bassy, dubstep-influenced “Oliver Twist.” The pattern continues from there; electronic sounds and drifting samples full of reverb play a part in quite a few tracks, but each of the nine tracks offers something totally diverse. 

In recent interviews, Portner has shed some light on the gloomy tone of the album being heavily influenced by the difficult events of his personal life from the past couple of years, including a family illness and the split from his wife, Kría Brekkan, formerly of the Icelandic band múm. 

The adjective “swamp-like” has been thrown around to describe this album in seemingly every bit of press, and for good reason. Layers of music are submerged beneath others as new ones pop up, while the vocals are manipulated and processed to the extreme for much of the record. More than that, though, the swamp is used as a metaphor for an emotional and psychological hell. Portner ruminates on his mistakes, his love becoming a mere memory and dealing with mortality and loss. He does this, of course, in the usual Avey Tare fashion — through lyrics that are indirect and abstract but drenched with feeling.

The unsettling vocal samples sprinkled throughout, presumably taken from old horror films, also lend the album a sort of schizophrenic vibe. In fact, “Down There,” coming out just five days before Halloween, is a seasonally appropriate release; it is often creepy, both sonically as well as lyrically. This album has its share of light, hopeful moments, too, including the warm ode to Portner’s bandmates (“3 Umbrellas”) and what sounds like a celebration of his sister’s possible improvements in health (“Lucky 1”). Not all of the melodies are demented or dark, either, and most importantly, they are all very good. It has always been tough to grasp how Portner comes up with such otherworldly, yet infectious tunes for his Animal Collective songs, which contrast so perfectly with the simplified (but equally satisfying) melodies of fellow band songsmith Panda Bear (a.k.a. Noah Lennox). Here, Portner’s unusual approach works once again to create a highly enjoyable surprise of a solo album.