Noah Lennox has identified himself musically under the name Panda Bear since his high school days where he began recording and sharing music with fellow vanguards of the experimental and psychedelic outfit we know as Animal Collective. In his fifth studio album, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, Lennox plays with the idea of saying goodbye to that black-and-white bear moniker and what it means to shed past versions of himself. Thematically, the album speaks existential growth, and while overall it’s not completely unlike Tomboy, which also featured production by Sonic Boom, there is a notable departure from the sound of his previous album.
Moments on the track “Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker” nod to “You Can Count on Me” and the babbling brook that ebbed through the 2011 release also flows beneath Grim Reaper. The harmonious Beach Boy-like melodies which were the backbone of Tomboy are now replaced with a sort of discord. The result being the difference between writing a song while completely lucid and the other being the incoherent mumbling of a person half asleep. Each track feels like it’s moving underwater, heavy with the weight of immersion and yet somehow bubbling and dynamic. It’s as though Panda Bear is singing a song he heard once in a dream, but can’t quite remember how it went.
Unlike Tomboy, which was recorded in the basement of Lennox’s apartment in Portugal, the first ideas behind Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper started while recording Animal Collective’s last album, Centipede Hz. The setting’s influence makes the record more varied, starting off with a church organ and then moving into “Mr Noah” which features samples of crying dogs while Lennox sings “this dog got bit on a leg.” The track is dizzying at first, sharp metal blades spinning into oblivion, followed by the heart-tugging whimpers of a beloved pet. The track is odd, danceable but confusing, especially once the lyrics come into focus. Even still, when I saw him perform the track on tour last October, it was one of my favorite of the night. The chorus is catchy, the stuttering “eh eh eh” in Lennox’s perfect tenor vocals are easy to nod to, and the driving drumbeat makes my body want to go limp and flop around like a fish caught in a boat.
“Davy Jones’ Locker” is the perfect prelude to the next track, “Crosswords” which sounds like a sugary sweet, late 60’s pop song on acid. I’m reminded of the Brazilian psych band, Os Mutantes, adept creators of the psychedelic sound Panda Bear is after. The next single on the record is “Boys Latin”, each word in the first two lines of the song is punctuated and echoes repeatedly, their meaning stretched out over miles, while a hand moving in slow motion reaches out to grab them. The simple 90’s hip hop drum beat keeps pace as the warbly synths ascend. If the fizz from a freshly opened soda can were amplified, this is what it would sound like. Lyrically, as with the first half of the album, the song seems to pose questions around intellect versus instinct, “beasts don’t have a sec to think, but we don’t appreciate a thing.” Noah Lennox explores his very own namesake and uses it to examine the parts of himself that are especially primal, those he dislikes most. Here Lennox is sharing with us the experience of shedding his animalistic impulses and moving to a higher self.
In the following track, “Come To Your Senses” Lennox questions himself, “are you mad?” then responds with “yeah, I’m mad.” The droning noises respond to him and sound as if they disagree. The song plays an important tipping point for the album. In interviews, Lennox talks about writing the song on a beach cliff in his current home of Portugal. In the last minute of the song and into “Tropic of Cancer” we can hear the influence of the Praia do Americano start to take over. The sea breeze blows and Lennox dives off, taking a deep plunge into the clear blue water. The elegant harp sampled from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” provokes us to imagine Noah as an underwater nymph gliding through the ocean, tiny bubbles forming around his nose as he makes his way back to the surface. The swirling six-minute song is a beautiful dedication to the memory of Lennox’s late father.
A quick eighteen-second interlude takes us to “Lonely Wanderer.” The graceful piano melody plays as the backdrop of Noah breaking free from the undercurrent as his soft and comforting vocals ask “how do you feel?” and “was it worthwhile?” If you listen close enough, you can almost hear the sound of robotic seagulls overhead, their electronic squawks accompanied by the perpetual mechanical whirring that exists across the record. There is a unique dichotomy that Panda Bear achieves by balancing a peaceful oceanic soundscape with a humming futuristic drone. The straight-forward drumbeats serve to draw the opposing sounds closer together without ever becoming distracting.
With “Selfish Gene”, Lennox hits us with his most Brian-Wilson-like song on the album. But just like the Beach Boy frontman used his poppy vocals to disguise despondent lyrics, so does Lennox hide behind his charming voice to cover up a song that is sadder than it initially seems. The chorus is made up of “you’ll trip up again” sung over and over again, bouncy synths lead to bits of crunchy distortion, then to bellowy sounds of a hovercraft taking off. By the end of the track, however, the overall sentiment Lennox advises is positive. He ultimately concludes that only we can make ourselves happy and ends the song with “you’ll get up again.”
The album closer, “Acid Wash” takes us back to the sea, this is wear Noah does best, both in lyrics and in sound. Perhaps it is because he’s lived among the beautiful beaches of Portugal for over 10 years and can do nothing but mimic its captivating sound. The water lives in Noah, they way it lives in his music and with Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper he’s used it to wash away all the worst parts of him. Despite the melancholic title, we come out the other end of the record renewed, even invigored. Panda Bear might have met death, but it was not for long. “As a ship on a sea cuts the froth, with a yell, as you've won against the deep.”
Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is out January 13th on Domino Records.
Visit http://www.pbvsgr.com/ to the purchase the record and for a psychedelic interactive experience featuring an original soundtrack by Panda Bear and Sonic Boom, videos by Danny Perez and graphics by Marco Papiro, Patakk and Hugo Oliveira.