Less swampy, more cosmic — that’s perhaps the easiest way to describe the difference between Panda Bear’s universally acclaimed 2007 album Person Pitch and this year’s anticipated outing Tomboy. Whereas the earlier album crafted an entire hipster biosystem out of chanting bros, murky drums, and hoot owls, the new release stands out dry and bare, spinning slightly above the damp ground in its own glittery orbit. Indeed, playing the new album is sort of like watching Yoda lift the X-Wing fighter out of the alien bayou on Dagobah; its still dripping with mud and moss, but it’s sleek, sharp, and ready, it seems, for take-off.
The difference in tone and outlook is neatly conveyed by the album’s first two tracks. “You Can Count on Me” provides a reminder of where we’ve been. Before all else, Panda reassures us — his fans as much as his young family — that he’s still got our back. The melody recalls the opening to Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends, but the multi-tracked vocals and shuddering beat suggest a much more optimistic sense of purpose and commitment. In typical fashion, Panda Bear sings of self-doubt, but the delivery conveys nothing but good intentions and warm comradeship. The second song, though, “Tomboy,” soars right into the stratosphere, creating a remarkable tension in both sound and mood. It opens with a double blast of keyboards and chugging guitar, and quickly lays down a series of dark chord changes laced with the sound of fluttering spaceship engines. Panda Bear chants ominously about the quest for self-knowledge; except for a slight Brian Wilson kink in the melody, the piece sounds like early Floyd, sputtering across a dark oblivion. It’s strange new territory for a Panda.
Certainly, both Panda Bear and his album have been struggling to find a coherent identity. Fans have been hearing different versions of these songs over the last few years, both in concert and as a series of independently released singles. After several delays, the tracks were gathered late last year and remixed by Sonic Boom (of Spacemen 3 fame), whose work at the boards gives the otherwise ragtag collection a consistent astral sheen. It’s also not hard to imagine that Panda Bear has been wrestling with the expectations raised by Person Pitch’s popularity. It must have seemed like some relief to stop trying to recreate that album’s visionary wonder and choose instead to explore a bunch of new, if unrelated, styles. Either way, the album moves no small distance away from both the aquatic soundscapes of Panda Bear’s earlier efforts and the primitivism of the entire Animal Collective scene, opting instead for a series of more or less self-conscious experiments in sonic form. More than anything else, Tomboy sounds like the work of a talented and introspective guy wanking around with a guitar and an effects box, searching for something both sacred and profane. Still, if the tracks seem to fit together awkwardly, they each individually offer something exciting and together neatly reflect the kinds of self-doubt and unexpected discoveries outlined in the lyrics.
Certainly, at least two of these songs carry Panda Bear’s trademark indie mariner yawp. “Surfer’s Hymn” sets its vows of commitment to the sound of, yes, crashing waves and a warbly synthesized xylophone. The song opens with a gorgeous melody (part Brian Wilson, part Irving Berlin) and then morphs into a rich African chant before finding release in a full-out stomp. “Last Night at the Jetty” gallops along at mid-tempo with a scrunchy Daft Punk beat; Panda Bear sings wistfully of the past, backed at times by what can only be described as a gang of roaring seals. It’s a ridiculously affective song — part meditation, part love letter — as close as anyone’s ever going to get to recreating the spirit of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday.” I found myself, however, most intrigued by the album’s two ambient tracks (“Drone” and “Scheherazade”) and the minor-key miracle titled “Alsatian Darn.” The latter opens with a clacking rhythm and steady guitar vamp, but soon turns into a heavenly chorale and then a pagan dance. It’s the one song on the album that truly hints at something beyond its own sound — mystic rites and occult powers. It left me speechless.
But there are also moments of self-indulgence here, especially in the second half. “Friendship Bracelet” goes on for way too long; with its gurgling vocals and bubbling arpeggios, it sounds like a roommate hogging the shower. “Afterburner” sets up a cool African rhythm section (think Talking Heads’ Remain in Light), but then buries it beneath an unbearably whiny vocal performance — all yelps and yodels. Listening to these two tracks, I began to understand how the crowd felt at the Pitchfork festival last year, when they found themselves caught stage-side at Panda Bear’s interminable set. For all its experimentalism, Panda’s music — with its ceaseless repetition, overdone delay effects, and simple-minded lyricism — often borders on the tedious. At the same time, his tomboy man-boy personality tends to fill up the room rather quickly, demanding perhaps more attention than you want to give him. Towards the end, the album comes across as a slow, lugubrious affair, and yet it is delivered with excessive intensity, making it seem, at worse, both underwhelming and overwhelming at the same time. Despite my best efforts to get through these later tracks, I often found myself drifting, partly out of boredom and partly out of psychic defense.
Certainly, Tomboy, recorded in a dark basement in sun-soaked Lisbon, delivers its fair share of primal pleasures and sacred ecstasies. With efforts like this one, Panda Bear and his coterie have established a genuinely avant-garde movement in America, pushing pop music into its first great posthuman era, both savage and abstract (their sound as a whole reminds me of Picasso’s work with African masks or D.H. Lawrence’s pastoral erotica). As artists, they may be granted a few moments of self-indulgence, particularly as such absorption seems to advance a truly creative process. There might not be any Ewoks chanting at the end of Tomboy (in fact, it ends with a rather awkward hymn to “winning”), but, thankfully, the saga continues. The force is strong in this one.