2012’s Centipede Hz, the spastic kid brother to it’s space-case sibling Merriweather Post Pavilion, is an underrated album in Animal Collective’s catalog. While I loved Merriweather Post Pavilion, Centipede Hz corrects the band’s course by understanding what that album did not: that the highest highs are colored by stress and tension.
The album underscores this by creating the sonic illusion of changing a radio station (the titular Hz) between many of the album’s songs. The statement is implicit: much like twisting the knobs on an old radio receiver, Animal Collective requires its listeners to find what they are looking for through interstitials of cacophony.
After college graduation I was hitting my stride. I was financially independent from my parents, living in a Craigslist arrangement with three women. I was back in my hometown with a community of healthy friendships, employed with a good Consulting job I was doing a good job at.
In a sitcom-esque fashion though, it wasn’t long before I started developing feelings for my landlord, West. West was not only someone I was living with and paying rent to, but was presently in an up-and-down relationship with a long-term boyfriend of three years. Regardless of the massive red flags, I couldn’t help myself from making whatever innocuous plans I could to be in her orbit.
West was beautiful, driven and hilariously acerbic. We formed a friendship in the margins of downtime found throughout the week: an afternoon run after work, a conversation over coffee on a Saturday morning, or a beer on the back deck trying to out-sing one another in “How’s It Gonna Be“.
In this stolen time, we play-acted a healthy romantic relationship in every aspect but a physical one. In our most unguarded of moments, we would push each other to that brink as well. Every couple months or so West and I would find ourselves on too-small couches; two steam trolleys barreling towards each other until violently pulling off the tracks before collision.
Bewitched as I was by West, the facts were the facts: she was seeing someone and there was no way we were going to be together. Perhaps not coincidentally around this time , I started emailing my ex-girlfriend, East.
East and I broke up the summer of 2011, in the weeks before I packed my college apartment up to relocate home while she stayed in town. I remember discussing it matter-of-factly on the deck of the complex’s pool, the sun beating down such that she seemed so far away, her face hidden behind the matte of my own squinting eyelashes.
The break-up didn’t feel like some overwrought conclusion one of us inflicted on the other, but a cosmic inevitability, as if we both inherently understood that our lives had different trajectories. Once I moved away, the relationship was over. After it was casually decided, we left the pool to make love, ate at the burrito truck, and life went on.
Over the course of the next year, East and I reconnected and would occasionally see one another to spend a weekend together, making love and rekindling the feeling of the halcyon time after college before real life started. It wasn’t long before I remembered how much I liked about East: her compassion, her natural state of calm and her quiet confidence. I felt like we both were on a similar wave length, searching for an ultimate someone, but happy to kill the downtime with one another.
And that’s how it was for awhile. I spent my downtime during the week getting to know West, and every couple months, I would spend the weekend with East. Despite the surrealness of the situation I found myself in, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t positively buoyant about it. Even though I wasn’t traditionally dating anyone, I was getting an intoxicating feeling from two very different, but impressive and important women: a feeling of validation.
Sure, I wasn’t *with* either of them, but I didn’t need to be. Right?
The crunchiness, pace and imperfection of the instrumentation sets a tone for the rest of the album: Animal Collective is a band that says “fuck it, we’ll do it live”.
Centipede Hz starts with “Moonjock” a psychedelic road trip down the I-95 corridor viewed through youthful eyes from the back seat of a parents car.
It’s followed by “Today’s Supernatural“, which portrays the thrill and horror of child wandering alone at an amusement park, encountering an off-tune organ grinder and a manic carnival barker yelling at you to “L-L-L-L-L-LET GO!”. While jubilant, the song has a tinge of delirium as it yells at you exclaiming “sometimes you’ve gotta get MAD!”.
Eventually, the pace slows with “Applesauce“, a nostalgic ballad that elegantly slides along until it’s suddenly propelled with cymbal crashes and staccato shrieks as if singer isn’t just happy to reminisce about the past, but desperate to.
In its first disc, Centipede Hz maintains a sense of manic joy that constantly seems on the cusp of a comedown.
One weekend after visiting East, I returned to West’s townhouse to the sight of West and her boyfriend watching TV, cuddled up with one another on the couch. Despite just having spent the weekend with another woman, the sight of them intimate together immediately through me off despite having no entitlement to that emotion. In order to look unperturbed, I plopped into a nearby bean bag chair and started shooting the shit with the two of them, eyes transfixed on whatever video game I started half-heartedly playing in an attempt to look casual
Eventually, in an attempt to do her own level of seeming-normal, West asked me how my trip was. I replied, in a tone that was probably a bit more pointed then I intended, by saying “I really enjoy visiting East. She really centers me.”. It was meant to be a subtle dagger intended only for West, weaponizing my relationship with East.
I am sure that to West’s boyfriend, on it’s surface it was a conversation that was completely in bounds for two platonic friends, however subterranean fissure lines were emerging. Eventually I walked upstairs to the sounds of them cavorting and laughing with each other, probably at my doofy earnestness, like a typical couple would. I was insanely jealous.
In the months to follow, I started entertaining increasingly unhealthy and possessive attitudes towards East as well. At times, I’d unilaterally make a grand declaration we shouldn’t talk to each other anymore to ease in us (read: me) in “moving on” from the relationship. Then, when she herself was in the process of moving on, I privately rooted for her suitors to fail on the off chance she’d be available for a weekend when I needed to see her.
For the better part of 2011, the dial was on the fringes of two different radio signals: a twist to the right was a world I didn’t fit into and a twist to the left was a world being built sole on my desperate imagination. Neither of the signals came through clearly as I bathed in dissonant static, breeding a disdain for both East and West.
At some point in the fever pitch of my situation with East and West, I’m in the pit of Merriweather Post Pavilion for my first Animal Collective show. On the stage, giant glowing teeth and a massive manufactured rib-cage enclose the band like they are performing in the throat of an ancient Leviathan. Animal Collective is touring Centipede Hz and, given they named their previous album after this venue, it seemed like it was going to be a special show. I invited a handful of friends to come with me.
In this cadre was my friend South. I had turned down dating South in high school in the midst of one of those classic crisis-of-confidence moments, realizing too late I had feelings for her. Regardless, we still remained friends, platonicly sharing beds throughout college when visiting.
Halfway through the set, the band lurches into playing songs from the second half of Centipede Hz, starting with the droning psychedelia of “New Town Burnout“; synth notes striking like spider-web lightning in the sky with a basketball break-beat that feels like a late night walk home under dimly lit street lights.
The concerts slows to a methadone drip, yet my heart-rate feels conspicuously high. Although I am keeping my head mostly down, vibing the set, I start to notice South dancing intensely with a AnCo fan that smoked her up earlier in the set. Something about that moment turns over in my stomach. An odd blend of paternalism and jealousy over South I have no right to feel starts boiling inside me.
As the song descends into a low fog, mechanical bells chime through the descending noise with assembly line precision. As the band seques into “Monkey Riches” and Avey Tare starts yearning about “a golden age”, the pit reacts to the increased tempo of the chorus in a cathartic mosh.
I’m not a part of it though, wholly divorced from the music and the moment. As I obsessively transfix on South, a tide of anger and sadness swell inside me.
As the crowd raged around me, I understand it. In that moment South was East. I had loved some one without realizing it until it was already gone. South was West. I had loved someone who wasn’t available to be loved. The momentum of the crowd started to consume me, and I felt my center of gravity contour with the whims of the mass.
I am unwillingly whipped around the waves of the joyous throng of the crowd, tasting the mist of their sweat and having their warm, wet bodies press against me, isolated from all of them. While they dance ebulliently without care, I am a self-serving sine wave violently lashing out at every cardinal direction. Up is down. Left is right.
The mosh pit swelled to the point where I couldn’t tell if I was the one pushing, or the one being pushed. I am hurting them. I am hurt by them. Whatever force I applied was equally applied back onto me, feeding the kinetics of a larger, uncaring organism. I no longer felt control of my own body and succumbed to the will of the pit, eventually forcibly being ejected by it.
As my heart attempted to escape my rib cage, I too escaped the pit. I realized a couple of days after the fact that I had been experiencing a panic attack.
Centipede Hz‘s highlight is “Mercury Man“, a spiritual re-imagining of Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. While Major Tom was stranded in an empty, calming nothingness though, the wayward soul in “Mercury Man” is careening through a meteor shower peppered by spectral clicks and beeps. Faced with certain disaster, the Mercury Man’s only mortal concern is not his survival but the desperation to have his inner voice heard across a universe-wide gulf of noise:
We must be somewhere
Can’t find it nowhere love
Is it me?
I keep calling
It feels like there’s no one there
It’s an ironic statement for a band that has always hidden incredibly vulnerable and human lyrics underneath at times, mechanical and inaccessible mechanical melodies.
The album concludes with “Amanita“, where Animal Collective laments the things that get left behind in an ever-evolving society while celebrating the ability to move on. The beginning of the song feels like a military anthem, with an imperial synth-line and marching band drum flourishes. Eventually though, the discipline and order of the beginning of the song explodes into a chaotic and triumphant finale, with Avey Tare announcing a strategic retreat:
What are you gonna do?
Go into the forest until I can’t remember my name
I’m gonna come back and things will be different
The year Centipede Hz was released, I was addicted to the high of loving and being loved with a childish level of greed. While I loved both East and West, I simultaneously showed disregard to both them and the men in their lives, caping myself in the belief that anything in the pursuit of love was noble.
A year and a half after our break up, I would eventually write an email to East where I told her for the first time I loved her. I would tell her that I had feelings for West and that I was sorry for being wishy-washy and sorry for apologizing and sorry I was even writing an email in the first place. East, in her infinite generosity, would respond with the infinite amount grace stating she just “wants to be the Elaine to my Jerry”.
I’d smile at the thought of her for one last time, delete her reply, and never talk to her again.
A month later, West would break up with her boyfriend. Our year and a half of pent up flirtation culminated in a late night hook-up, after which, something clearly felt wrong. A week later, she would give me my two months notice to move out of her place.
I wouldn’t take that long though. The next day, I called into sick into work, packed my things, and moved out of her house.