What’s the most frightening signifier of apocalypse? The members of Animal Collective tend to focus on life’s celebratory emotions and experiences instead of the damning ones. Dave Portner, aka Avey Tare, has suddenly picked his own champion for the end of humanity. It’s not politics, flooding, or even cars. It’s coral.
This isn’t an apparent lyrical trope of Eucalyptus, Portner’s first solo record since 2010’s heartbreaking Down There. As a matter of fact, nothing that comes from his own mouth is. ‘Coral Lords’ opens with an uncredited speech about how the death of coral reefs are the first sign that “our ouroboros is almost complete.” The tale casts a shadow over the rest of Eucalyptus; if the world is coming to an end, what’s a guy like Avey Tare going to do about it?
Again, this is not an easy summary to arrive at, nor is the answer preoccupied with sadness and regret like Down There. It’s hidden is the waves of vocal delivery, acoustic arrangement, and the atmospheric attitude of the album. It isn’t obvious that Portner himself has a grip on the message he’s trying to deliver, but that’s part of what makes Eucalyptus, however sleepy it can get, worth your attention.
A song, in the pop music sense of the word, doesn’t crop up until track three with ‘Ms. Secret’. Portner and friends are half celebrating, half lamenting dawn’s arrival after sharing stories of a more innocent period of life when “no one was cheating on us.” Like Elliott Smith encouraging his girlfriend to “drink up, baby” on ‘Between the Bars’, Portner insists that staying up is an imperative: “Gotta stay up ‘til the sunrise/ it could be the last time/ that the earth makes it so.” Portner’s happy to spend time with companions, but is simultaneously nervous about their time ending. Even the outset of day is nerve-wracking on ‘Jackson 5’, where Portner playfully pleads “My hope is that it works today/ I hope it’s not the troublesome way.”
Eucalyptus isn’t entirely composed of heavy concepts. Engineered by Deakin (fresh off the release of last year’s stunning Sleep Cycle), the pair put together an enormous pile of instruments, guest musicians, and sounds that channel the chameleonic nature of Animal Collective’s early work. Bongo sounds are delayed and manipulated on ‘Boat Race’, didgeridoos and drones are in the foreground of 'DR aw one for J', ‘Season High’ puts together guitar tones borrowed from any number of moments in Portner’s 20-year career. Unpacking the arrangements takes as much diligence as it does the lyrical content, but is no less rewarding.
Eucalyptus is a fine insertion into the current iteration of Animal Collective. With Sleep Cycle, Deakin proved how essential his voice is to the band, while the other three members put out AnCo’s most divisive record: the puzzling Painting With. But together with Eucalyptus and Meeting of the Waters, the members of Animal Collective are approaching the freak folk tag they mastered on 2005’s Sung Tongs. That being said, that scene has long since expired, and Avey Tare has become a household indie rock name in the interim.
In contrast to the interpersonal and deeply loving songs composed for Sung Tongs, Eucalyptus concerns itself with meditation, spirituality, and a connection to Earth. The record begins with a nod to Mother Nature: “At the top of morning came the silver dangling rain/ in every droplet Eucalyptus showed its face.” Though ‘PJ’ is a recollection of a conversation, it is stamped with natural imagery from beaches to moons and back to the wind. This is how Portner plans to begin his acceptance of the world’s end; “I pray deep like Buddha/ But I don’t understand him,” he sings on ‘Coral Lords’. If he can appreciate the flowers present on ‘Season High’ and ‘Selection of a Place’, he’ll certainly be able to look back at a burning world and think “I got the most out of it while I could.”
Portner remains almost as emotionally direct as he’s always been; he sneaks breakup imagery into the strums of closer ‘When You Left Me’, he considers his ability to connect to others on ‘Melody Unfair’. Eucalyptus constantly addresses Portner’s loved ones, making it easy to remember that, though it’s been 18 years since Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished, this is still very much the poetry of Avey Tare.
What’s also new about this particular Dave Portner is that the overflow of ideas, lyrics, and themes doesn’t turn spastic and blurry like it has on records past. Eucalyptus, though adventurous, is down to earth and focused. It’s by far the most spiritual Avey Tare has ever sounded (except for the transcendent love on AnCo staple ‘Fireworks’). The pieces of the record are spread out all over the cutting room floor. As you pick them up, they’ll shapeshift and tell their stories whether apocalyptic or teeming with life. Portner and Deakin didn’t make the process immediate, but they certainly painted a compelling image of a band in transition; and a songwriter in search of new reasons to enjoy and sing about life.