Even before its release, the indie blogosphere basically crowned Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion the best album of 2009 (listen to it here). Skeptical but titillated I purchased the album, gave it two listens, and fell, hard. On a gut level I knew that AC had done something new and decisive. But I couldn’t name it. The best some blogs could do was explain the album’s magic in terms of the right ratio of experimentation and tradition:
- It’s of the moment and feels new, but it’s also striking in its immediacy and comes across as friendly and welcoming. Pitchfork
- Merriweather is indeed the crossroads of the norm and the alternative. . . Instead of escaping from the derivations of their inspirations like almost every other band does, they’re beginning to show their colors more clearly by paying careful homage to those they love. Justpressplay
These statements approach what makes MWPP a fantastic record but they don’t help with what makes it groundbreaking. It wasn’t until I attended a lecture by French philosopher Alain Badiou at the Pasadena Art Center that I heard an answer. There, Badiou (who, BTW, gives good fashion) offered his perspective on contemporary art.
Here is the gist: some art aims for complete negation of the world, either by 1) making art that destroys art in all its former conventions (dadaism) 2) making art that disappears into life (surrealism) 3) making art that is subsumed into politics (socialist art). All of these forms of art involve a complete negation of the old and an affirmation of the new. Badiou juxtaposes these with contemporary art, which proceeds not by affirmation/negation, but by subtraction/formalization.
Instead of attempting to destroy the conventions of art, subtraction aims to locally suspend conventions (or, as Badiou calls them, the law). He gave the example of Samuel Beckett, who did not completely eschew traditional literary forms, but rather experimented within those forms in new ways. Badiou would say that Beckett locally (as opposed to globally) suspended the law (literary conventions) to create new forms. Instead of affirming a new order or absolute, Becket formalized the experience of these local suspensions. That is, he did not merely suspend the law but he created new forms under the suspension. As a crude analogy, this would be like locally suspending the laws of gravity and coming up with new forms of experience under these conditions.
Badiou’s next step is crucial, and it is where we see how his claims radically differ from Pitchfork’s formula–‘just enough new and just enough old = delicious.’ He points out that the new forms created under localized suspension of the law are new ways to experience the possibility of the future. Contemporary art offers the possibility of new possibility, new visions, because it gives us new postures with which to await what comes next. This could not happen without suspension because we would be stuck with only those possibilities allowed by the current law.
This is why Merriweather Post Pavillion is not just great music, it is groundbreaking music. It offers new ways to wait for the future. It opens us up to new future possibilities. What are these new possibilities, or spaces, that AC has created? Here, I think m.garner at Aquarium Drunkard elegantly hits the mark:
These [songs] are meditations on calm, quiet, and altogether normal life. As if to clear up any doubt there is even a track called ‘Daily Routine.’ But each thought and prayer is dressed up with the true importance and beauty that can be found only in small things. People chat. Doors creak. Things happen. They are small. They feel big. And, yes, many will miss what moves below this record . . . But there is a better world than all of this, a world where small prayers to be a good father can become one of the year’s best pop songs. Under the rocks and stones, there is water underground.