This perplexes me, since Portner was always the main songwriter for Animal Collective. Even though he's unfairly pegged as the noisy/dissonant/experimental member of the group, if you spend a few minutes with his previous sort-of-solo album, Pullhair Rubeye, or, you know, most of the tracks on Merriweather, you'll soon be reminded of his gentle and/or melodic side. Furthermore, Portner was the guy who wrote the majority of the best known, best loved Animal Collective songs, so why was almost no one, outside of dedicated fans, buzzing about another solo album from him?
Down There, as it turns out, isn't as dissonant and experimental as you may expect. It is less hook-y and song based than the last four Animal Collective albums, to be sure, and he has also retreated to using effects on his vocals and singing in a way that it makes it hard to figure out what he's saying. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is an album that disappears into itself far more than it invites the listener in. There is a listless, airy quality to this music; in general Down There is the sort of record that seems to spend as much time in near-silence or statically hanging in vocal-less electronic ambience as it does treating you to concrete songs, albeit ones with slow feed melodies and hooks. While I do think this heavily electronic and atmospheric aesthetic works for these songs, that doesn't mean the album, by extension, works. Now that I think about it, in some ways it's like the polar opposite of Panda Bear's Person Pitch, all dour and insular and barely there, instead of bright and expansive and maximalist like that masterpiece.
If Down There sounds like anything from the Animal Collective discography, it picks up where the slower, bummed out tracks from Merriweather and the Fall Be Kind EP left off. A better comparison may be that it's the break-up album, other-side-of-the-coin to the love song filled Feels. 'Cemeteries' in particular seems like the evil twin of slow motion psychedelic Feels dreams like 'Daffy Duck' or 'Loch Raven.' To put it yet another way, Down There reminds me a bit of Thom Yorke's solo album, The Eraser, in the sense that you have the ostensible lead musician in a popular, beloved band delivering an underwhelming solo album that sounds as downcast and bedroom born as it probably was. Now, to be fair, I do like The Eraser, and I also like Down There. But in both cases I spent an inordinate amount of time listening, waiting to fall in love as I always had, and never finding much to get excited about. Down There is merely an interesting but partially forgettable album, lacking any of the punch or character of his best Animal Collective music.
Portner has gone on record as saying that he has no intention to tour this material, since singing these songs every night would be like returning to the dark place they came from. So this tells us that Down There is his most personal statement yet, and it also tells us that the record was a catharsis for him. I'll go ahead and add that Down There is an example of a solo album that will only appeal to longtime fans and not those drawn in by the honeyed bliss ofMerriweather. Portner does mostly stick to his less screamy vocal approach on this album, but even then, the melodies and hooks are much less apparent and memorable than on anything he's written in the last five years. Since this record sounds so much like Animal Collective, it's impossible not to compare. To that end, let's just say, even the more immediate, direct, and enjoyable songs, like 'Lucky 1'—with its knotty electronic pulse and Portner's devastating “were you crying?” repeated question—are underwhelming. Even going by other albums or its own standards, Down There is rarely above average.
Sometimes misery and unhappiness can lead to great art. Other times, though, they can lead to a normally peerless artist throwing a pity party and retreating into good-but-unremarkable art. Down There isn't so much a disappointment as it is inessential. Fans will enjoy, maybe even love, this album, but those who were drawn to Animal Collective by their recent more accessible music will find this a thin, unsatisfying listen.
3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5