Music Reviews
Meets the Grim Reaper

Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

(Domino) Rating - 7/10

The staggering success of Panda Bear, Noah Lennox’s solo vehicle that channels his wildly cerebral introversions, can be attributed to a play on creativity that perfectly suited its time. The musical landscape shifted when solo producers took it upon themselves to record through their own means, and thus, has since provoked a tidal wave of liberation that is now almost overwhelming. One could say that the expectation that surrounds a new Panda Bear record easily surpasses that of his tenure with Animal Collective, but only because there’s still an air of mystery about Lennox’s painstakingly labored craft. We can expect how Animal Collective sounds - loud, ramshackle, frenetic and dizzyingly psychedelic - whereas Lennox’s project holds more of an emotional resonance despite the overall abstractions that underpin it as a whole.

Having said that, Person Pitch catapulted Lennox into the hearts of an entire generation because it sounded and felt important. A myth has been cultivated behind Lennox, a U.S. expat who now enjoys a more laid back life with his wife and kids in Lisbon regardless of his self-proclaimed “outsider” status. And rightfully so - there’s still a freshness in the polychromatic Person Pitch that simply holds a magical aura. Forget the Beach Boys-circa-Pet Sounds allusions that creep into his work, even when both projects share the idea of making transcendence an art form, to create richly adorned sounds through a variety of production tools. The Beach Boys progressively retreated from that avant pop sound, whereas Lennox practically embodies it, though both will always be remembered more for catching lightning once within an expansive palette instead of considering their entire body of work.

Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper isn’t a considerably innovative return, and it needn’t be, though it further highlights some of the nagging indulgences of his past work. A great part of the record’s first half implements textural effects to the point of coarseness, and the lack of subtlety in the overall structuring of the songs works against their favor. The damp, aqueous design of Sequential Circuits alludes to his Animal Collective companion Avey Tare’s solo work Down There, opening with a sedate, droning wash that means to pinpoint the beginning of an unsettling journey. The warped, puzzling Mr. Noah is Lennox’s way of corrupting a pop format while equally embracing it, implementing echoey vocals that wedge into your brain like earworms over a warped backdrop of bold coloring; to its favor, its limp, rave-like ambience has a ghoulish charm, where only the freaks are invited to come and join.

At times, it can seem as if Lennox is too entrenched is his own absurdist universe that it keeps him from really branching out. Except for the beatific sampling and motorized backbeat that boasts the exquisitely buoyant Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker, an unfortunately-titled track that actually has some very clever wordplay much like, well, the famed nursery rhyme it originates from, the endlessly bouncy lurch of Boys Latin and the woozy plod of Come to your Senses are less pleasantly mind-altering and remain in a tortuous limbo where Lennox’s flat, indifferent voice lacks any magnetism. The latter has him questioning "are you mad?", to which he replies that "he is" in a tired refrain behind a sustained loop that doesn’t make him any more convinced of his own feelings of disapproval. Whereas the utilization of loops in Person Pitch gave the source material a warm, transcendent glow, the swampy, indecorous murkiness of Grim Reaper provides a stifling type of fatigue.

In the album’s far more superior second half, however, Lennox begins to make sense of his fragmented thought process with a welcome level of clarity and concision. The affectionate Tropic of Cancer, an ode to his deceased father, possesses an otherworldly force in the way Lennox manipulates the words ("And you can’t get back/ you won’t come back / you can’t come back to it") over a blissful harp melody as if he himself were staring into the abyss of death. He encounters a dim, horribly beautiful purgatory in Lonely Wanderer, which samples a portion of Debussy’s Arabesque melody juxtaposed with a disconcerted, trancelike motion. It’s the one moment that makes some reference to the titling of the album, as Lennox questions in full reverie: "If you look back / would you look back."

Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper can be a particularly infuriating listen since it wanders between moments of greatness and utter tedium. Lennox is a more capable songwriter when he shows some restraint and elegance, and yet he feels the need to return to those more jumbled moments that suffer from patchy results. Its hypnotic incompetence borders on asphyxiating, but such is price to pay to eventually uncover his unhinged individuality. In the closing minutes of Grim Reaper, Lennox tells himself that he’s won against the dark, and doing so could’ve only been achieved by outwitting, not bribing, the expectations that surround him. That in itself detains the sound of his impending death knell.