Anyone who tells you that they were privy to Campfire Songs upon the original release of the album in 2003 is likely lying through their teeth. Predating the“collective,” at this point they were merely friends either living together or half-miles apart, making incidental bandless records that emphasized lengthy acoustic mantras, spacious field recordings, and the occasional electronic phantom. As members of their own tribe (in whatever configuration), it seems Animal Collective has always been making music both (extra)terrestrial and suburban, without time or face. Even today, as Merriweather Post Pavilion cements their thin-air melodies and rudderless rhythms as maximalist mutant pop, they thrive not so much in their mystique as they do their anonymity. Campfire Songs is deeply personal psychedelic music as much as it is the primal ingredients for a populous to make of it what they will.
Still, the album contains only glints of what the group would become in the impending future. If anything, Campfire Songs is a prelude to their further explorations in folk-jam and drone on Sung Tongs and Panda Bear’s marathon masterpiece, Person Pitch, as it takes some quiet patience and an almost submissive choose-your-own-adventure frame of mind. That simplicity doesn’t distract from the record’s sonic beauty, bathed entirely in a dreamy glow produced by either choice room noise or a light rainstorm outside the window. Nestling close to “Queen in My Pictures” is a necessary commitment in order to fully seep into Campfire Songs. It’s a gateway, a lengthy procession of introductory soft chords and voices cycling aimlessly, but barely moving. Hypnotized by the first 10 minutes of pastoral opiate, “Doggy” continues the side-long meditation by breaking free from the trance and forming into a recognizably Animal Collective structured song, echoed and airy enough to evaporate before truly staking a conscious claim. With a steady stream of endless whimsy, this acoustic journey, ended by the rustic lullaby “Two Corvettes” and accented with bits of tambourine and mandolin, charms for a long spell before eventually closing in whispered psycho-babble.
The flipside is where things tend to become lost. Between “Moo Rah Rah Rain” and “De Soto De Sun,” the group’s identity is burrowed pretty deep. The only intent I can gather is an aural representation of dusk and dawn, respectively. While the songs are intriguing in scope and composition, they’re also elusively pretentious. But it’s likely that there’s a strict adherence to a blueprint here, the esoteric goo they would soon learn to mold into hooks is in its rawest state. It’s exactly the album they hoped to create: a loner forest jam that purposely gets lost in a bin of equally lost albums made by soul-searching musicians like themselves. The sense that it’s unheard music with every spin is what gives Campfire Songs its credence among Animal Collective’s growing persona.
Kevin J. Elliott