Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
….Or Noah Lennox meets the psychedelic sweet spot
by Jericho Cerrona
Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) seems to be wrestling with some very specific issues throughout his fifth solo album Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. Obviously, there's that title; one that acknowledges the death of his father in 2002 from brain cancer as well as the recognition of his own mortality. Now 36, with a wife and children residing in Portugal, Lennox is no longer the wide-eyed experimental pop genius behind Animal Collective's incredible run over the past decade. Instead, he seems to be a man haunted by the cruel marches of time; someone who continuously uses the sunny, pop-oriented disposition of his music in order to question the painfulness of existence. One would never think that, of course, from casually listening to Lennox's back catalog--an undeniably pretty, though brazenly experimental, collection of warped pop tunes that's immediately recognizable as a product of his restless imagination. But there's also the idea that this signature sound; swirling samples, glitched-out loops, otherworldly vocals, is being used in order to disguise (or reinforce) a crumbling mental state. If one is able to read between the multi-tracked delays and fluttery production, there's a raw depressive streak being communicated in much of Lennox's music that's never been quite as prominent as it is on Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper.
Sharing similarities with Lennox's last solo effort, 2011's glacially psychedelic Tomboy, as well as the chaotic messiness of Animal Collective's 2012 opus Centipede Hz,Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper also carries somber undercurrents floating just beneath the blissful surface. The production by British musician/producer Peter Kember (aka Sonic Boom) is crucial here, much as it was on Tomboy, in distilling Lennox's particular state of mind through the collision of sampled sounds, clipped beats, buzzing synths, and washed-out psychedelia. Even more so than on those past works, Lennox incorporates his love for dub reggae and 90s boom-bap into the mix, resulting in an album that's possibly his most accessible yet, despite the at times disorienting production. First single "Mr. Noah" is classic Panda Bear; a combination of strange animal sounds, a bouncing beat, and Lennox's child-like vocals. It's the kind of catchy avant-garde pop that's become a Lennox special; repetitive, bouncy, glitch-heavy, and irresistibly modern. In fact, much of the album's first half follows this familiar template; from the abstract dreamy harmonies on "Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker" to the ambient electro fuzz of "Boys Latin", which features overlapping, barely discernible lyrics. There is, however, a clear preoccupation with the uncertainty of consciousness that can be picked out, such as the refrain of Dark cloud descended again/ And a shadow moves in the darkness on the latter that speaks to Lennox's newfound fascination with waning mortality.
This tendency Lennox has toward overcrowding his sound with every sonic trick in the book means that he's never been the most forthcoming lyricist, which can be a problem on an album like Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, which is clearly going for more narrative coherency than much of his past work. He's always made headphone-reliant albums first and foremost; from the brilliantly dense mosaic that was 2007's Person Pitch, to the drone-influenced effects pedals of Tomboy. Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is in a similar wheelhouse sonically, but in many ways pales in comparison because Lennox never quite articulates his deep-seated struggles with darker impulses that's necessary for the album to truly resonate. Fashioning a semi-coherent narrative was never instrumental to the success of Person Pitch or Tomboy since the idea of narrative was ostensibly absent to make way for musical density. These were "experience" records; at home with Lennox's uncanny ability for layered melodies and electro-psychedelic soundscapes, but gleaning thematic meaning from them was arbitrary, if downright impossible. Here, a song like "Tropic of Cancer"; a lushly symphonic lament concerning the death of his father, is so strikingly free of bombast and digital wankery that it paints him as a songwriter in a whole new light. Lyrically, it's also the most direct he's ever been; with the confession that sick has to eat well too over the track's plucked Hawaiian guitar and gentle ambiance giving the track a hauntingly tactile power. Elsewhere, on the gorgeous piano-laden ballad "Lonely Wanderer", Lennox layers Sonic Boom's bizarre production choices (what sounds like crawling digital bugs) over ethereal harmonies to create one of his most touching songs to date.
Truthfully, the moments where Lennox slows down and creates a window into his soul are few and far between. Instead, synth-driven funk (as evidenced by his work on Daft Punk's Random Access Memories) bubbling beats, and cooing Beach Boys-inflected harmonies are the order of the day here, which will no doubt satisfy diehard fans. Still, those rare instances where you can sense him trying to branch out and tackle legitimately troubling issues hint at the album that could have been; something more daring, more uncomfortable lyrically, something that perhaps pushed Lennox out of his sonic comfort zone. In fits and starts, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper achieves that delicate balance between auditory experimentation and narrative richness (particularly in its second half), but there's also a disappointing sense of aesthetic sameness here that keeps it from true greatness.
This is not to say that dealing with existential angst and death must be accentuated with obvious lyrics or clear-cut emotions. To the contrary, Panda Bear's upbeat sound overall is a legitimate counterpoint to despairing subject matter, and at times can be profound by asking the listener to dig deeper. But by digging deeper, one is obliged to ask just what Lennox wants to say and how loudly he wishes to say it. When he proposes the question Would you look back/ Was it worthwhile? on "Lonely Wanderer", it seems as if the answers aren't forthcoming, and in effect, that much of life is riddled with unanswered questions. Lennox may be "meeting" death through the prism of living in the present, but the future is simultaneously terrifying and liberating.