Album Review: Panda Bear – ‘Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper’

‘Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper’ cover

There’s an interesting dichotomy exhibited by the various press releases and interviews surrounding Noah Lennox’s third solo album. The lexicon concerning ‘Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper’ features an overbearing sense of ‘maturity’ thanks to the record’s references to fatherhood and the ‘dark clouds’ (‘Boys Latin’) of mortality and reality; yet the sound of ‘Grim Reaper’ seems consciously playful – Lennox himself refers to the album as ‘‘the sound of (him) having fun’’. Instead of succumbing to that much maligned ‘crisis’, Lennox appears to have found the process of entering middle-age refreshingly liberating, even admitting to Rolling Stone that he had considered hanging up the ‘Panda Bear’ alias (a dilemma perhaps documented by the repeated line ‘You can’t come back, you won’t comeback’ amongst the eerie serenity of ‘Tropic of Cancer’) during the upheaval.

Luckily for us, however, he decided instead to dust off the sampler and those synonymous, gliding purrs for (at least) another record. It’s important to remember that Lennox has recorded all his solo work under the auspicious circumstances of being a member of Animal Collective. ‘Grim Reaper’ is a culmination, even a celebration, of Lennox’s experiences, both musically and personally. If that means it is also to be the conclusion of ‘Panda Bear’, then Lennox will leave just as he began – on his own terms, in his own time, and with an enviable sense of quiet satisfaction.

‘Fun’ is just the right word to use. Less confined and constricted than the excellent debut ‘Person Pitch’ and focused discipline of ‘Tomboy’, ‘Grim Reaper’ bounces around effervescently between genre, tempo and mood. Throughout the first half of the record, interludes such as ‘Davy Jones’ Locker’ are redolent of nothing in the brighter, funkier tracks that stand next to them – Lennox’s wry nod of admission to life’s flavoursome unpredictability. ‘Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker’ sounds like Timbaland mixing Depeche Mode, and ‘Crosswords’ could be a George Michael B-side. Despite these hideous parallels, Panda Bear’s authenticity and willingness to push the envelope renders them exorbitantly triumphant. Besides, they sound great – the common ground in this hodgepodge is Lennox’s instantly recognisable vocal, those vertiginous, hymnal melodies that swoop and soar over the tracks like an albatross surveying a coastline. That’s a convenient metaphor – Lennox has noted a nautical influence present in the album derived, he reasons, from the decade he has spent raising his children in Portugal.

‘Mr. Noah’

After its burst of rhythmic, gurning grooves, ‘Grim Reaper’ slows down into territory more familiar to Panda Bear followers. Ironically, it’s this trajectory, this return to a more synonymous style of music that stimulates most fervently those ideas of maturity, of growth, experience and perspective. In Lennox’s own words, ‘‘it’s the death throes of the identity and as the album progresses, it gets more broken apart and damaged until it hits this place where the previous identity completely disappears. It matches the times in my life where I felt like I had gone through an intense change of character when I felt like I was growing the most’’. To come to this realisation is not to discredit the process of expanding palette and vocabulary; if anything it offers to those earlier songs a value deeper than merely their considerable aesthetic assets. In a pool of personal maxims, the line ‘a total shift in the unconscious’, in ‘Selfish Gene’, might encapsulate most effectively this abstraction. Suitably, stunning tracks like ‘Tropic of Cancer’ and ‘Lonely Wanderer’ are decidedly more panoramic, probing and coaxing the aforementioned state of mind.

‘Mr Noah’ was played on Steve Lamacq’s BBC Radio 6 podcast last week. One of the guests responded by saying that, to paraphrase, she was intrigued, hooked-in, and wanted to hear more. Though that’s a compliment that can be ascribed to pretty much all of Lennox’s work, it’s specifically apt for ‘Grim Reaper’. The album is so alluring, but more importantly uplifting, in the way it blends wild sporadism with meditative relatability. Much ‘electro-pop’ (think Chvrches, Chairlift etc.), despite not sounding too shabby, infers vacuous, plasticy undertones, a sense of ultimate pointlessness. Panda Bear cannot even begin to be accused of this. Like all great musicians, his work is motivated by personal processes and emotional reflections. Listening to ‘Grim Reaper’ from beginning to end, it’s hard not to be stringently aware of this, even whilst immersed in all those layers of computerised clamour.

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Key Tracks – ‘Mr Noah’, ‘Lonely Wanderer’, ‘Boys Latin’

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