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Album Review: Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

 

Over the summer, Avey Tare took a break from touring to talk to Yoni Wolf about his solo work and his band, Animal Collective.

“I think you can know what is like a pop element and what is going to reach out to people and what is going to be accessible, but I feel like accessible to us has always been a dirty word” Tare said.

Animal Collective has always been a polarizing group for listeners — there are those who get it, and those who don’t.  But Noah Lennox, who has been using the moniker “Panda Bear” as far back as 1998, is the group member with the best pop sensibilities.

The song that changed things for Animal Collective was “My Girls”, a highly catchy tune penned by Panda Bear expressing his desire to be a good father, caring for his daughter.  It bought them a new fanbase and crossover success in other areas. Who would have ever thought you’d hear an Animal Collective song in a movie like Project X?

On Grim Reaper, the pop sensibilities continue more so than on Panda Bear’s last solo album, 2011’s Tomboy.  It’s brighter, more melodic and accessible.  For an album name dropping the Grim Reaper, it’s a more optimistic take on death and the afterlife than Flying Lotus’ approach, who released an album last year with similar themes.

The lyrics come across more mature, as Lennox is a father embracing adulthood whereas Animal Collective’s music always had a childlike sense of wonder.  “Selfish Gene” encompasses this concept the most where Lennox refers to himself, “when it comes to fill those spaces / only you can fill those spaces,” show just how central being a good parent has become to Panda Bear’s identity.

Lyrically, it’s most similar to “My Girls” (“There isn’t much that I feel I need / A solid soul and the blood I bleed / But with a little girl, and by my spouse / I only want a proper house”).

There are still bright spots of psychedelic weirdness found on the album with a lot of Lennox’s songs dissolving into a noise of chaos, such as the opening track, “Sequential Circuits.” Others, like “Boys Latin,” feature a more pulse-driven beat.  However, the short instrumental interludes feel out of place and disappointing.  Why waste an awesome track title like “Shadow of the Colossus” when it turns out to be 18 seconds of strange noise?

“Tropic of Cancer” is a highlight, though unusual song for the electronic songwriter. As a ballad about his father, who died of brain cancer in 2002, the track is much more coherent than his 2004 wordless hymn, Young Prayer LP — also dedicated to his father.

“Overall, that song is about sympathy for disease, trying to forgive disease, seeing it as just another thing in the universe that’s trying to survive,” Lennox told Pitchfork earlier this month.

“Principe Real,” named after Panda Bear’s current neighborhood in Lisbon, Portugal, has been floating around since 2012 and is more upbeat and, by far, the best Lennox track to dance to.

One of the best qualities about Lennox is that he’s nearly 40 years old and his choirboy pipes sound just as good as they did 10 years ago when he was singing along with Tare on Sung Tongs.  Noah’s music has always felt like “a communal church service: They welcome us in with reassuring proverbs (“try to remember always, always to have a good time”) couched in heaven-sent harmonies, provide a sense of comfort in the face of encroaching chaos and strive to connect our physical world to a more celestial plane.”

As the endless comparisons he gets to Brian Wilson, it’s a lot like Pet Sounds and SMiLE — only his own take on spirituality through music.

During live sets, Panda Bear always plays his newest material, hardly ever looking back. If you’ve seen him recently, you’re probably familiar with most of the songs, but it’s still nice to have the collection recorded in a studio, as that is where Lennox’s music shines. There’s always been an inherent psychedelic quality in Noah Lennox’s work — from the 60’s Phil Spector-esque Person Pitch to Tomboy’s Beach Boy melodies meets fuzzy Velvet Underground riffs.

Late last year, Lennox told Rolling Stone, “I’m not a psychedelic warrior by any means, but that’s an element of music that I find to be very psychedelic: when everything mixes in weird ways and you can’t tell what’s what. That’s when quasi-magical stuff starts to happen, when things start tricking my ear and my brain. One of my favorite questions is asking people how they define psychedelic music. For me, it has something to do with things tricking your ear, when things are more than the sum of their parts. I feel like that’s the target always with my music, the psychedelic sweet spot.”

Watch the psychedelic animated video for “Boys Latin” below and purchase the album here or stream it via Spotify.

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