Traveling With Headphones Series #1: “Did You See The Words”//Animal Collective

At the height of my career as the most middling violinist you can imagine–fourth chair, second section, non-audition high school string choir–the entire school music program was invited to Disney World for some kind of youth-arts workshop that I now admit I remember very little about. The upshot was that we were allowed onto a charter bus to Florida for the price of some hastily sold wrapping paper and driven straight through the night under the admirable discipline of the orchestra director, who Expected the Bus to be Quiet by ten p.m. In reality it didn’t happen until around one. And for better or for worse, in my brain, it didn’t happen at all.

I can’t sleep in cars. I learned on this trip that I can’t sleep on charter buses either. I sat bolt upright for hour after uneventful hour, the combined music students and faculty of my high school evenly breathing in round around me as the advancing headlights outside grew sparser and sparser. By 6 a.m., it seemed we were the only ones on the road. As we crossed the Florida state line, having passed the last two hours listening to Beirut’s “Mimizan” so many times I’d almost forgotten other music existed (it’s a great song, okay?), I queued up Animal Collective’s Feels.

This is one of those albums that simultaneously sounds exactly like something its artist would produce, yet is also somehow like nothing else in their catalogue; an instantly noticeable contrast couched in familiarity, like old furniture in a new house. It’s hazier, less punchy–echoing ombrĂ© sounds that fade and wash together. Amidst the wash, the sound of the out-of-tune piano around whose notes the songs were devised sparkles like an electrical current.

The second sound you hear in the opening track–the rain-swelled trickle they titled “Did You See The Words”–after a metallic drone that races to the fingernails in wait for what’s coming, is that piano, embracing a guitar so tightly they melt into one under the hot sun of reverb. The notes settle winglike in a repeating cascade, inviting the pulling back of saliva, the gentle flow of the mind. It was at the moment this hit my half-sleeping brain that the highway bent eastward.

With such suddenness as to take the breath the windshield was filled with a glowing peaches-and-cream sky, the scenery-panel blankness of early sunrise, folding itself down behind track-sliding silhouettes on the distant beach. Black cutouts of palmettos studded its pale expanse. An otherworldly splash of orange light stained the interstate, overcoming its orderly momentum with the feeling of a dream.

When the reedy hush of Avey Tare’s voice began, “Have you seen them?” it felt as if he was telling me a secret. This was a version of the world that so few human beings ever saw–it belonged only to the fishermen, the bakers, the delivery people, and beyond them, beneath their feet, to the dawn-chorus birds, the feral cats, the night creatures returning to their hiding places. Which hour is it, that photographers call magic?

In the tiny bubble universe between the headphone speakers, the drumbeats coursed like blood. The lyrics were folded in cymbal crashes like splatters of ink curling away through clear water, speaking of, invoking, really, the mysteries of inspiration.

I had heard this song before, but not like this. In its quiet exuberance I could feel the breath, in and out and in again, of something sleeping down below the fabric of waking life. There are worlds in us and there are words in us, in all of us, waiting for the single stone’s shift that will send them gushing forth onto the floor. The dream, the conversation, the stranger’s face, the lover’s touch, the song, the sunrise. We all have our art, even if that art is just living, and often without noticing, we live trembling in anticipation of the moment we put the first paint stroke down. It took a tremulous piano riff running down my spine to bring that to the surface.

Around its anchoring rhythm, “Did You See The Words” is imprecise. There is the de-tuned piano, the sense that the parts don’t quite go together perfectly, shifts in tempo moving at last to the gradually slowing conclusion. This childlike messiness evokes creativity at its most ecstatic, its most spin-around-and-fall-on-the-floor, its most purely joyous. When the words come dripping down, it says to me, throw your umbrella aside and catch them in your mouth.

When a moment connects us with the buzz of being alive in this quiet and electrified cosmos, there is no way to respond but with beauty of our own. This is what art, in all its forms, is: call-and-response, melody and harmony, stories around the sacred fire. The poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.” Every time I hear this song I remember this moment, when the world offered itself, placing its blank canvas before my drowsy eyes.

Yes, gentlemen of the Collective, I have seen.

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