Panda Bear Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper

[Domino; 2015]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: continuous distillation
Others: Animal Collective, Sonic Boom, Brian Wilson (jk)

“Are you mad?” No, I’m not mad, and I’m not really disappointed either. The above score isn’t meant to read unfairly (though droves of Animal Collective fans will think so. I know how this works — I’ve been on the same forum with them for going on nine years). I have to partially address them, as well as my longtime-crush Mr. Noah himself: That score is not backlash, and it’s not me “throwing a burrito on your windshield.” It’s actually a “good” score, according to the TMT Reviewer’s Guide, which I think Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper is.

My expectations for this album, Panda Bear’s follow-up to 2011’s Tomboy, were warped by my excitement, even before the accelerating hype for its physical release. The massive old-school press rollout, the multimedia treats, the cover stories both mythologizing and humanizing Noah Lennox (affably aloof, with music in his veins), and the album’s self-referential epicness all signify Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper as an Event album, but many of us have already worn it out in the two months since its leak. In that time, I’ve felt enamored, bored, and eventually content with the album.

PBVSGR feels unmistakably familiar, in tune with the same pop songwriting and family-oriented, pantheistic cautious optimism that has propelled Panda Bear’s project for years now. That’s not meant to be a value judgment; I think I’ve just fallen out of touch with Lennox’s now well-worn conceptual pursuits while still appreciating the flashes of musical inspiration that remind me of the stupidly-grinning 17 year old whose world was turned upside down by Person Pitch back in 2007.

Lennox himself might be fatigued:

You made a bunch you bet
And you’ll make more
Go on make some more
But you won’t
Nope you won’t
Ever make that one again
You don’t make that one again
Don’t make that again

Embattled, self-effacing lyrics like the above verse from “Come To Your Senses” could be a clue into Panda Bear’s creative insecurities, though the universalizing impulse that animates most of Lennox’s lyricism makes it difficult to parse. “Come To Your Senses” — a seven-minute dub-inflected trance that follows in the groovy vein of long-form Person Pitch centerpieces “Bros” and “Good Girl/Carrots” — is a funny place for these lyrics, then, because it sounds like Panda making “that” again. The album, as strong as some of its songs are, suffers from “that,” what now seems to be the trademark Panda Bear (and after Centipede Hz, Animal Collective) sound: mid-tempo, wonky pop jams riven with unabrasive noise.

The album’s most interesting and affecting tracks are its most subdued and far from “that.” The dual chilled-out ballads “Tropic Of Cancer” and “Lonely Wanderer” stand among the best of Lennox’s compositions. They highlight what have always been Panda Bear’s primary draws: melodic invention, show-stopping choirboy vocals, and a deft ability to shoot for the saccharine and land among the surreal. It’s easy to hear these strengths in the dreamy “Tropic Of Cancer,” where his lullaby croon floats adrift in swirls of wind over an immediately-recognizable harp sample from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. He finds a moment of alien sublime when he dips into his lower vocal register and flips the sample just enough to menace. On “Lonely Wanderer,” his cooed vocals and eerie piano (equal parts Young Prayer closer and “Loch Raven”) battle with invading waves of static and bass. Here you can actually feel the unsteady internal balance that Lennox sings about throughout. On these two tracks, Panda Bear and returning producer Sonic Boom do a lot with very little; they give breathing room to the idiosyncratic songwriting that defines Lennox’s best work.

This is more than can be said for the amorphous wash of many of these songs. Tracks like “Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker,” “Crosswords,” and “Principe Real” blur together in a string of forgettable, lilting melodies and airy instrumentals. Striking singles “Mr Noah” and “Boys Latin” rise above the others and go for the Tomboy sweet-spot of psychy, bappy, pop-chant (the former with added Rihanna reference, the latter consumed in channel-hopping harmonies). They both center on Panda Bear’s impeccable ear for rhythm and attendant forward-falling vocal runs. But all of these songs are caught on the album’s preoccupation with busy, transitional noisescapes and superfluous interludes like “Davy Jones’ Locker” and “Shadow Of The Colossus,” which bridge songs already seeming to faze in and out of each other.

Some of the PBVSGR sessions’ most dynamic and immediate songs were cut from the album (“Jabberwocky,” “Cosplay”) or appeared on last year’s phenomenal Mr Noah EP (“Faces In The Crowd,” “This Side Of Paradise”). Several of these unreleased tracks can be heard in abbreviated, mashed-up form at the official PBVSGR website’s audio-visual playground, along with disorienting, twisted versions of album cuts. These looping, noisy, and off-kilter co-productions from Panda and Sonic Boom often make for a more captivating listening experience than their originals. As it stands, the album sounds like Panda Bear at the height of his unchecked, uncompromised (and, therefore, at times uninventive) powers.

So: Are these songs a cohesive statement of Panda Bear’s clarity of vision or a numbing mesh of aconceptual sound, an exhaustion of his sonic palette? Is the album a widescreen smorgasbord of matured material or a lengthy collection of distilled hits? After so many revisions, and now that Panda seems settled melodically and thematically, it has become increasingly difficult for me to discern a middling Panda Bear album from an excellent Panda Bear album from a Best New Music album from a left-field Panda Bear album that exists only in my imagination. I would’ve been stoked on a lot of these songs seven years ago, but now their unobtrusive noise mostly scans rote (though enjoyable). Then again, by obscuring intracategorical differences to accuse a comfy-in-Lisbon, nearly middle-aged genius of becoming middle of the road, I could be playing into a critical trap that seems to follow artists with such expansive back catalogues, especially one that includes some of the most widely-acclaimed and influential releases of my generation. And if it’s possible to peel back the layers of hype and history, you will likely hear in Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper an unsurprisingly good Panda Bear album.

Links: Panda Bear - Domino

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