Noah Lennox has been making music for 15 years under the name Panda Bear, both alone and as a member of Animal Collective. With his choirboy vocals and knack for songwriting Lennox has become one of the biggest names in experimental indie music, never shying away from new sounds and styles but rooting it in memorable and melodic music. But with Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper Lennox falls a little short on both fronts, delivering an album that never quite gels and doesn’t quite satisfy.
The album gets off to a good start; the unassuming Sequential Circuits opens the album with attack-heavy organ sounds and manipulated sounds of insects, with Lennox’s familiar reverberated voice ringing over the top. Things don’t stay placid for long; the next track Mr. Noah starts with unsettling samples of whimpering dogs before being subsumed by swirls of electronic sound and feedback, driven by a limping drum beat. Like many of Lennox’s best, the song wears its folk and world music influence on its sleeve; with its sing-along refrain of “this dog got bit on a le-e-e-eg..” it sounds like a simple campfire song played with a laptop and synths instead of a guitar and hand claps.
The next track, Davy Jones’ Locker, is where things start to turn sour. The track is only about 30 seconds, but it’s so irritating and unnecessary that it completely breaks the flow of the album. This change in momentum happens throughout PBVSGR; while the intended effect is probably to keep things interesting, the effect is more like musical whiplash, and the album’s cohesion suffers as a result.
Lennox has said that 90’s drum programming heavily influenced PBVSGR, but combined with the echoing keyboards and cluttered waves of sound the effect is more like Loveless-era My Bloody Valentine than a Teddy Riley production. This is especially true on Crosswords, with cheesy drum fills meeting squelching bass and staccato synths to make a strange, if slightly grating listen. The lyrics seem to be addressing Lennox’s more nostalgic fans (“stay scared while I improve/but it don’t mean I’ll do it like you want me to”), but the music behind it isn’t necessarily his strongest argument.
The next song, Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker, fares much better. The song is more ethereal and dreamlike, backed up by an endearingly tinny Bossa Nova drum machine. It’s one of the first moments on the album where the disparate sounds feel like they’re working with rather than against each other. The track is essentially a breezy pop song veiled in a thick haze, playing well to Lennox’s songwriting strengths.
With Boys Latin Lennox takes the campfire song idea to its logical conclusion, with his mantra of “Beasts don’t have a sec to think but/we don’t ‘preciate our things but…” jumping back and forth between the left and right speakers, surrounded by hypnotic reverberating percussion and a pulsing bass synth that phases in and out of time. The song is weird and disorienting in the best possible way. Come to Your Senses isn’t quite as successful; the longest song on the album, it doesn’t really have enough ideas to carry itself over its length. It aims to draw itself out and lock into a groove, but is essentially a three minute song that gets played twice, and by the time it ends its welcome is well worn out.
Where the first half of PBVSGR is a loud and at times claustrophobic listen, its second half is a more subdued affair. It also features some of the album’s better moments; the songs sound like they have room to breathe, and Panda Bear has always been good at using space effectively. This is best seen on Tropic of Cancer, the album’s emotional core and its most beautiful moment. The song features Lennox’s voice stripped of his trademark vocal reverb, accompanied only by a harp; he sounds naked and vulnerable, much like his 2004 breakthrough album Young Prayer. This song, like that album, deals with his father’s death from cancer; the song takes on an added dimension with Lennox having become a father himself and fearing the disease’s heredity. But the song is ultimately about acceptance, of death as a necessary process and of disease as just another living thing trying to survive. The track is immediately followed by Shadow of the Colossus, another short, unnecessary interlude, particularly obnoxious since it separates the two slowest and prettiest tracks with a bizarre and ugly wash of noise.
The track Lonely Wanderer is another slow burner, with Lennox singing a hymn-like melody over a cascading Debussy piano sample. The track is occasionally punctuated by a subterranean bass note drowning everything out, before building up to a sinister climax that sounds like falling through a wind turbine. Principe Real, named after an up-and-coming neighbourhood in Lennox’s adopted home of Lisbon, combines jazzy house music with Panda’s own ethereal sound. The track lives up to its name, sounding like the soundtrack to an awesome but hazy night out on the Iberian Peninsula.
The last two tracks provide a strong finish to the album. With its evocative vocal melody and simple but effective instrumentation, Selfish Gene sounds like it could’ve been written for a golden age Disney film, and its message of self-determination is a good antidote to the passive optimism of It’s a Small World or When You Wish Upon a Star. Meanwhile album closer Acid Wash is the closest Lennox has come to a lighters-in-the-air moment, a psychedelic power ballad with a huge, kaleidoscopic climax. But good as these songs are they seem to have come from a different album, one that has been building up to a big finish instead of not knowing where to begin.
Many of the best albums that Animal Collective and its members have released have been completely disorienting in a fun and engaging way. But PBVSGR ends up sounding confused itself; Panda Bear sounds like he isn’t quite sure what it should be. Many of the songs sound like they could only belong in their original context, but the album doesn’t really have the cohesion it needs to be enjoyed as a whole. It ultimately makes for a frustrating listen; Lennox’s music has always been a little opaque and obscured, but this is the first time it’s felt like he’s keeping listeners out.