I’ve been drawing back pretty close to Animal Collective’s 2005 album ‘Feels’ the last couple of days. I’m pretty sure, at this point, that it’s what I would call a masterpiece because of both the extraordinary quality of every individual track as well as the arc of the work as a whole. If I had to choose an album to listen to for the rest of my life, I think it may well be this one. As with all of the posts I put up on this blog I don’t think that what follows is any kind of complete evaluation of what I think about the album, but acts simply as a means of allowing me to vocalize some key concepts that come to mind when reflecting on this work.
What’s a Masterpiece?
In the tradition of European guild arts, a masterpiece was the work that an apprentice would present to the guild to apply for membership in the guild-itself. Interestingly enough, contrary to our contemporary understanding of the masterpiece, it isn’t necessarily the ‘high point’ of one’s artistic career; rather, it is simply the first work that is deemed worthy of being retained as a work of quality by the guild. That it has come to signify a work that is the culmination of one’s life work is, then, quite interesting. It seems counter-intuitive that the culmination of one’s life work could be the first major piece of one’s career. What I’d like to consider is the fact that the question of the masterpiece comes down to the fact that the ‘rest’ of one’s work, that is, the works that come after the masterpiece historically, is condensed into the work that proceeds it, historically. Even if we take the term more loosely, to designate the work that is an artist’s ‘greatest’ work, then we still have to consider the fact other ‘good’ and perhaps ‘great’ works come after the masterpiece. In the case of “one hit wonders,” the concept makes perfect sense: the culmination of an artist’s work comes in their first commercial success, many artists burn out after their introduction to the wider world that receives their work. I think that the guild system models our own commercial system well, insofar as in both systems, there are a great deal of artists who produce one great work, a work that fulfills their artistic development in a single piece, after which there is only repetition and degradation. We retain in the historical script a number of artists, however, that cannot be reduced to that single fulfillment, that single telos of an artistic force. Rimbaud and Rilke are the first that come to mind. Both wrote really “great” works early in their career, works that were both well received critically and which remain as works of staggering brilliance, but also went on to produce their “greatest” works after their ‘masterpiece’ (in the classical sense). Are we to think, for these artists, that they did not actually achieve their ‘masterpiece,’ their work to be retained by the guild, until after working through their already ‘great’ works? Badiou’s thinking on the truth of artistic production, here, is quite helpful. For Badiou, the subject of art is not found in the human animal who produces pieces of art. Rather, it is more like the current of an artistic push, the instance of art itself. Regardless of the individual who produces the work, the artistic piece itself is that which achieves the status of ‘masterpiece.’ This, clearly, obfuscates the problem of the masterpiece precisely because it does not allow for a single narrative of the linear development of an individual’s artistic production. Art, for Badiou, may be created by an individual, but its truth lies in the collective flow of an artistic current.
(Animal) Collective Production
Animal Collective presents somewhat of an impasse in contemporary music. The premise of the band is that there is an ever-evolving group of individual musicians who have similar proclivities when it comes to creating artwork. Though the band roster has revolved around a relatively stable group of individuals (Panda Bear, The Geologist, Avey Tare, &c.), the band itself is a sort of side project for each of the individual artists who are working on their own music, rather than the other way around (which would be ‘normal’); hence the “collective” part of the Animal Collective moniker. More often than not, one hears that an individual in the collective is touring or putting out a new album. All of these individuals, however, share a common taste in style (one could very easily read into this the concept of ‘forms-of-life’ in the thought of Wittgenstein and the Tiqqun Collective) and it is this common taste that is the common spirit that produces art without assignment to a particular individual. It is in this way that we can understand ‘Feels’ to be a masterpiece despite the fact that some of Animal Collective’s more recent albums also seem to be their “greatest” works.
What’s a Collective?
Some folks I know have rejected Animal Collective on the ground that their use of the designation “collective” belies a rich political sense of that word. I’m with them to a certain extent on this sentiment. Where I think I break with this feeling, however, is insofar as I don’t like the idea that there is such a strict definition of what ‘politics’ is. Though the Animal Collective is an artistic group, one with admittedly understandable close ties to a very a-political ‘hipster’ culture, there is nonetheless a political dimension to the group insofar as they are continually committed to the rejection of a central focal point of their artistic endeavors. Though, as noted above, there is a central group around which the Animal Collective revolves, there is nothing (even in theory) like an “Animal Collective Manifest” that ties us to thinking of the group as essentially connected to any of those in the milieu which has produced the albums we know of so far. When I listen to this band, the closest historical analogues I can think of are artistic movements such as the “Parnassian Poets” or the “Atonal musicians,” &c. That is, there is a common spirit without the ability to reduce the collective work to a singular human site.
What Makes ‘Feels’ a “Masterpiece”
After these preliminary remarks, I feel like I’m ready to talk about the work itself. As I stated above, each of the individual tracks on the album are fantastic, from the post-structuralist ballad ‘Did You See the Words’ to the youthful exuberance of ‘Grass’ to the heartfelt existential ballad ‘Banshee Beat’ to the transcendental ode ‘Turn into Something.’ There is also an arc to the album that leads us through something like a transcendental dialectic. In the first song, ‘Did You See the Words,’ the band makes us aware of the centrality of language. But unlike the normal call to language to which many philosophers orient us, this song makes language a primarily corporeal experience. Sings Panda Bear: “Did you see them/the words cut open/ your poor intestines can’t deny/inky periods drip from you mailbox/blood flies drip and glide.” In this, there’s a tangible experience of language in not only the body but also in the transmitter of language, the mailbox, which moves physically inscribed words from one place to another. Through the next couple of songs, we experience the development of this idea, oscillating between seriousness and silliness. Finally, in ‘The Purple Bottle,’ there is a sort of high point, which through the use of a vocal effect which moves between stability and confusion, the album’s subject experiences a sincere connection to an Other: “can I tell you that you’re the purple in me?/can I call you just to hear you would you care?” After this song, there is a gradual disintegration of this connection, a denoument of the experience of the outside world. Finally, in the last song of the album, we are urged to “Turn Into Something,” to go beyond the simple experience of the outside (and of the consequent retreat from the outside, the “Bees” of traumatic experience) and create something new of ourselves. Ultimately, I think that there is a reason why the group decided to call the album ‘Feels’ rather than ‘Reasons’ or something like that: in this artistic experience which has the trace of a story arc, the album does not make a complete commitment to a single story, but plays about the arc that I have outlined above.
As I noted in the introductory notes on this essay, there is obviously much more to be written about this album, and I have assumed and sketched a great many thoughts about the songs contained on the album that I left unqualified which I feel the need to go back to at some point in the future. For now, this is what I’ve got on the album, I’d love to hear back from you to learn from my mistakes and to ‘turn into something’ else.