You’ve almost got to feel bad for the countless non-committal, casual indie rock fans who fell head over heels in love with Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion early last year. They were, understandably, so taken by its pitch-perfect mix of experimentation and palatability—its unexpected arrangements and its Big Money pop melodies—that now, as Dave Portner, aka Avey Tare, releases his solo debut almost two full years later, one imagines an awful lot of them saying, “Ooh, fun, one of the guys from Animal Collective is releasing a CD! I bet I’ll totally like that!” Except no: They probably won’t like it at all.
Much has already been made about Down There being a dark record. Its material came about during a time in Portner’s life when he was faced with numerous struggles—a split from his wife, the death of his grandmother, his sister being diagnosed with cancer—and holy shit, does it show. From the crocodile-adorned album cover to the press photos where a crocodile head is superimposed onto Portner’s, the adjectives are pretty well-established before you even press play: murky has been a big one, and creepy another, though swampy has been perhaps the most prominent. The album was recorded in a church in upstate New York, but the last thing you’ll find here is the type of wide-open, booming acoustics the setting would seem to suggest. On the contrary, we get all sorts of stuttering synths, clanking percussion and layers and layers of effects that leave everything feeling fucked up beyond repair.
Down There is a tough listen for a number of reasons. It’s as claustrophobic sounding a record as you’ll ever hear, and it’s not just because there’s so much going on: it’s because so much of what’s going on sounds like it’s struggling to be going on at all. Things cut in and out before you know it; there are sudden bursts of noise; the vocals sound like they’re coming from underwater, except for the few brief moments when they’re right up in your face—it’s harrowing in the most classic sense. When he wonders, during “Oliver’s Twist,” “Shouldn’t I be content with what I’ve got?” it’s a clear indicator of the album’s success that we feel like, jeez, no he shouldn’t. What he’s got sounds pretty fucking bad.
In a way, for all the aspects of it that are genuinely challenging and not exactly suitable for daytime or mainstream consumption, Down There is also the most literal and straightforward piece of work anyone from Animal Collective has ever produced. It came as a result of extreme personal hardship, and it sounds in every way imaginable like the work of a person who is having an extremely hard time. It’s not that people won’t be able to understand it—it’s that they simply won’t want to. And it will be their loss.