THE UNDERDOGS: Animal Collective’s ‘Centipede Hz’

A column about underrated albums that didn’t get their due.

I call 2012 the year of the follow-up. Some blew away expectations (Celebration Rock, Lonerism), while others solidified legacies (Bloom, Shields, Swing Lo Magellan).

Yet Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz didn’t do either. Upon release, critics were underwhelmed and confounded. The band failed to build on the near-mainstream profile it won with 2009’s classic Merriweather Post Pavilion, leaving diehard fans to defend the album. For the first time, Animal Collective’s work wasn’t widely acclaimed, and thus marked their descent from the indie rock throne they claimed for a decade.

Yet seven years later, Centipede Hz doesn’t sound like the disappointment we initially thought it was. The album isn’t perfect, but not due to any failure of effort. Opener “Moonjock” has Avey Tare yelling over an arena-sized beat and sparkling radio static. The song transitions into the dizzying “Today’s Supernatural,” where Tare sings over an arpeggiating keyboard and tribal percussion. These two tracks are the unfiltered, unhinged counterparts to Merriweather’s “In the Flowers” and “My Girls,” and you have to give them credit for holding nothing back.

If anything, Centipede Hz highlights a band confident and secure enough to pursue creating music in their vision, accessibility be damned. Guitarist Deakin’s return meant all four band members were contributing to songs written purposefully for live shows. And Centipede Hz comes closer to capturing the band’s in-person energy than most of their previous efforts: experimental yet melodic, dense yet seamless. Their performances are more or less songs woven together with several-minute-long transitions. And sure enough, most of Centipede Hz does just that.

Critics called out the album’s sonic density as its key pain point. Indeed, it’s still the quality that separates Centipede from the rest of the band’s catalog. And while this approach works on the opening two tracks and the excellent “Monkey Riches,” it also wears thin in other spots. “Rosie Oh” and “Wide Eyed” tread the same territory, leaving them feeling almost superfluous.

But for lovers of the band, there’s still plenty to enjoy. “Monkey Riches” is arguably the best song the band has written this decade. “Applesauce” and “Mercury Man” contain AnCo’s trademark quirky use of melody while tackling the bigger issues (fruit as a metaphor for life and death, the pang of isolation that comes from touring).

Centipede Hz did for Animal Collective what Wowee Zowee did for Pavement. It deflated expectations and kept the band under the radar. For the first time, the band hadn’t attempted a near overhaul of their sound. Instrumentally, Centipede Hz explores the same musical territory as Merriweather. Energetically, it packs the same punch as 2007’s Strawberry Jam.

But you also get the feeling that none of that mattered in the creation of this underrated album. Call Centipede Hz a missed opportunity if you want, but clearly Animal Collective didn’t care. Neither should we.