To say that Animal Collective is the greatest psychedelic band of the modern era is a tricky statement. Not because it’s not true, but because the term “band” doesn’t really accurately describe them. As the second word in their name would imply, they are a group of artists that are fully functioning on their own terms; the Collective is not the sum of its parts, it is an occasional outlet for them to collaborate together, whether it is playing instruments, DJing, or putting on art exhibitions.
Furthermore, making a statement like that would imply that the solo careers of the artists are not nearly as important as that of the Collective. And as the past few years have proven, Animal Collective drummer Noah Lennox aka Panda Bear, is an equally (perhaps more so) formidable presence in the world of psychedelic music as a solo act. Between soundtracking fashion shows and collaborating with Daft Punk, Lennox’s hipster cred is off the charts these days, and as his excellent new record shows, he has no intention of slowing down anytime soon.
The album seems to have three clear sections to it: the first is a series of warm psychedelic pop ditties that aren’t too much different from 2011’s excellent Tomboy, but with a little less melancholy and a lot more ’60s influence. Then comes a surprisingly stark pair of minimalist ballads, finally closed out by some synth heavy tracks which are texturally quite different from anything he’s ever attempted before, yet without sacrificing his signature Brian Wilson x1000 vocals.
Guiding him through this musical journey is former Spacemen 3 member and MGMT producer Sonic Boom, who is proving to be quite the name to lookout for in indie psychedelic rock these days. “Boys Latin” features some of the coolest vocal production I have heard in a long time, with the voice being tossed back and forth from left to right constantly except for when the glorious full-on harmonies come in.
Although there is a lot happening on this album, Panda’s typical ambient noise samples and vocals are never diminished for the purpose of pop music, which he is undoubtedly diving head first into, like never before. Lead single “Mr. Noah” has almost a Brit-pop vibe going, but with a curious lack of bassline and the sounds of a whimpering dog running the entire time. The song is basically his solo career in a nutshell: it’s almost pop music, but with just enough weird to keep it from really fitting that definition.
“Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker” pushes this idea even further, with what is quite possibly his most upbeat track yet. It bursts into existence out of nowhere, with Lennox singing a series of cautious warnings against doing too many drugs or dating too many girls. Perhaps this is a warning for his young children, perhaps it’s autobiographical (he has gone on record saying he generally does not enjoy being intoxicated), but whatever the case, it’s about as close to a radio-ready rock song as we’ll ever hear from him. Soon after though, he takes us into darker territory, mining the album’s title in an intensely cerebral fashion.
Perhaps the most striking track on the entire album, “Tropic of Cancer” tells the harrowing story of watching his father succumb to cancer as beautiful, ambient harps play warmly in the background. Lennox has described the song as chronicling his acceptance of death as a natural part of the life cycle, and it actually lives up to both parts, sides of the wordplay present in the song title: the melancholy of death and disease and the glory of floating in tropical waters.
What is perhaps most interesting about this track is his father died a while ago; it was the birth of his children that made him re-evaluate the events in this new context. Panda Bear is the first member of Animal Collective to become a father, and it has done remarkable things for him as a musician. What could easily come off as hammy and disrespectful for the sake of a clever song name, actually works very powerfully, showcasing not just his surprising range as a solo artist, but his incredible growth as a songwriter.
“Tropic Of Cancer”:
While many artists would try and spread out their mellower songs throughout an album, Lennox makes the interesting choice to place them in succession with each other. “Lonely Wanderer“, a sparse piano ballad punctuated by electronic buzzing noises, comes almost immediately after “Tropic Of Cancer”, with only a short instrumental interlude in between. The track is notable not just for the lack of reverb, but for the way that Panda sings and even hums several lines with no words.
When he does sing words, the lyrics are a series of haunting ambiguous questions, most of which do not rhyme, such as “was it worthwhile?“. While he has made a career out of music that sounds like they are meant to soundtrack dreams, it turns out that some of his most uncharacteristically quiet songs are some of his dreamiest tracks yet. It would be interesting to hear him go full-on folkie on future solo efforts.
After this, Lennox moves into the final (and my personal favorite) part of the album: the dance section. But like anything else he’s ever done, it’s not your typical dance music. With “Principe Real“, he basically renders Neon Indian’s entire career obsolete with the coolest, spaciest, deceptively down-tempo disco anthem in years. If you thought Animal Collective’s “My Girls” was the grooviest thing this guy was capable of, prepare to blown away.
Conversely, the closing track, “Acid Wash” is classic Panda Bear: ambiguously possibly drug-related title, rolling tumbling rhythms, and absolutely astoundingly massive vocal harmonies. The synth textures keep up nicely with the preceding tracks, but it still feels like a callback to his 2007 classic Person Pitch” more than anything else on Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper. It’s a fitting end to an album that blends his signature sounds with new ones.
Almost any review or interview with Noah Lennox will focus on the fact that he is a self-identified loner. He moved out of the US to Portugal to hide from the world, he talks quietly, seems stoned even though he doesn’t smoke, etc. With an album called Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, and tracks with titles like “Lonely Wanderer”, it would seem that he’s pushing this whole depressed introvert thing farther than ever, but most publications seem to miss a key factor that is absolutely painfully obvious in almost any one of his songs: he genuinely enjoys being an outcast. It’s fun for him.
This album is a celebration of not just life and death and childbirth and natural beauty, but of the simple things like taking a walk on the beach with your dog or playing piano by yourself in an empty house. Although I would love to see a new Animal Collective album sooner rather than later, with every solo album, I begin to enjoy the concept of Panda Bear by himself more and more. Maybe one day, I’ll enjoy it as much as he does.