A version of this review has been published by the blog Pretty Much Amazing, which you can read here.
Over the course of ten studio albums and a slew of one-off releases, Animal Collective has gained a reputation for being a musical chameleon in the experimental music scene while also magically maintaining a spirit, some unspeakable trademark on their changing faces. Earlier this year, however, the group released Painting With, an album that scrupulously cut through their once creatively pulsating psychedelic brain like a dull colored scalpel. What existed earlier at the center of their best material was the melodic sugar-hiccuping vocals of Avey Tare and Panda Bear, frequently embarking on a voyage through buckets of reverb, and a forest of warm, comforting slabs of psychedelia; these were arrangements so gauzy they left a strikingly addictive residue. For Animal Collective to unwieldy remove these familiar sonic elements out of the blue was nothing short of a bold move but Painting With, in turn, felt like a largely incomplete stylistic puzzle.
Enter the long-gestating solo venture of Joshua “Deakin” Dibb, the unassuming wallflower to Avey Tare, Panda Bear and Geologist’s spotlight-jacking superstar in Animal Collective, who was conspicuously missing from the group’s lineup on Merriweather Post Pavillion, their career defining album from 2009, and this year’s uneven Painting With. As story goes, Deakin took a brief hiatus from his duties in the group seven years ago to raise Kickstarter funds with the intention of releasing an album, performing live in Mali, Africa, and subsequently making a charitable donation to TEMEDT, an organization working to help end slavery in Mali. For fans still eagerly yearning for Animal Collective’s return to earlier material, be it Sun Tongs, Feels or Strawberry Jams—albums which Deakin contributed to—his debut album, Sleep Cycle, will certainly be a pleasant trip down memory lane. While listening to the album it’s abundantly clear that his trip to Mali was no ordinary vacation, serving as epoch-making inspiration for much its emotionally rich music, and many of the field recordings were even taken during his time there.
But perhaps what’s most rewarding from Sleep Cycle is its deeply introspective and spiritual bent, no matter how arch or abstract the actual music is, and each of the six songs on the album is ostensibly imbued with some kind of personal significance to Deakin as both an individual and budding independent artist. Album opener “Golden Chord” delights with both its anguished refrain: “You talk about frights/ In the verse of every song/ You tell me what’s wrong/ But what’s right?” and its life-affirming mantra: “Simplify, define your goals, and watch them grow/ Be your own true self/ The you that I know.” From the hallucinogenic properties of “Just Am” to the kaleidoscopic shimmer of album standout “Footy,” Sleep Cycle contains an endless stream of stimulating music; an experience that’s at once brimming with the familiar childlike innocence of ancient day Animal Collective and a wide-eyed wonderment for the creative process. Although it wisely avoids any political pontification, the album does perfectly contrast the harsh sociopolitical nature of modern slave labor in Mali by merely acting as an escape from it. Understanding the power of music, the album bursts with optimism, a love for life, and occasionally even oozes with an otherworldly, transcendental substance from its proverbial pores.
At just 33 minutes spread generously across its six songs, Sleep Cycle is an album that’s quite easy to fall in love with. Sonically speaking, it’s an inscrutable psychedelic journey; one that’s perhaps the musical equivalent of an ayahuasca ceremony in that it reveals itself to be an unmediated visionary journey for Deakin. The album is ultimately able to shine because it carefully dodges the very snags that drastically brought down the quality of Painting With. By composing Sleep Cycle as a song cycle that focuses on colorful layers, amorphous textures, and various devil-in-the-details arrangements, it’s the subtlety of this common thread—which becomes apparent after spending some time with the music—that makes it all so affecting. Like Impressionist painters using art to make an immediate visual impression, Deakin similarly dabs small strokes of sound to create fantastic unconventional compositions. What he’s presented us with, essentially, is the skeleton of Animal Collective’s fleeting creativity, stripped down to its roots, revealing that even at its rawest, purest form the music still has an instinctive grasp of sincere emotion and beauty.