As the last remaining embers of Animal Collective’s psych-folk bonfire Sung Tongs fade into the cool recesses of an autumn evening, thoughts turn inward. The celebratory razzle-dazzle fest went late into the night, its whoops and hollers ricocheting off the gnarled bark of the forest trees, echoing atop the shimmering surface of the nearby ocean. But now it is nearly morning, the pre-dawn spiked with oppressed allusions to light coaxed by an impending sunrise. The party scene has thinned, its participants dissipated or asleep on the sand; near-holy moments of pop deconstruction have been waged and left to linger in the airy labyrinths of memory. Moments like these are as disappointing as they are promising, as there’s no telling if the new day can match the glory of the preceding night.
Panda Bear (née Noah Lennox, one-half of Animal Collective’s genetic makeup) retreats indoors, seeking to trade Sung Tongs’ projectile song-storms for a more reflective catharsis. His father has passed away, and Panda Bear seeks solitude to properly document his grieving. With a guitar on his knee, Panda Bear practices a Zen-like dedication of unwavering focus. Silences are broken by sudden movements. Peace is found in ritualistic repetitions. What are Panda Bear’s tongs like?
The result will be Young Prayer, a 28-minute record consisting of nine unnamed tracks. If Sung Tongs is the all-inclusive campfire song feast, Young Prayer is a peek through the window of a secluded cabin. Panda Bear’s invocations aren’t gripping or evocative like Animal Collective’s; in fact, the intimate nature of Young Prayer immediately casts the listener as voyeur. Melodies are scarce and in-the-moment feeling is king. Young Prayer is method acting, minus the acting.
Listen closely and you’ll make out the encroaching din of crickets in the distance. Vowel sounds will twist and contort their way from the depths of Panda Bear’s mouth; only occasionally will the intended words be recognizable. The lines that do emerge, unscathed from the wordless pureeing, are full of reassurance and promise: “This is how I will speak to you”; “I will have sons and daughters”; “I will not give up on you”. Panda Bear’s voice swells and fades in each mantra of self-expression, often dancing around the confines of a one-chord guitar inflammation.
Percussive sticks will flail like rattlesnakes, only to suddenly disappear. Handclaps will kick up dirt from the hardwood floors and anchor a round-robin choir of multi-tracked Panda Bear voices. Pianos will pulse and play off one another, confounding the rhythm like out-of-sync windshield wipers. But these occurrences are like mere punctuation to Panda Bear’s stuttering acoustic guitar and eerie vocal cries, the main text of Young Prayer‘s documentation. Fingernail strums precede rattled uprisings as pleas are made incomprehensibly. In Panda Bear’s world, the way a vocal performance sounds is just as important, if not more so, than what is actually being said. The performance is what is being said.
When the sun has finally risen and Panda Bear has put himself to bed, Young Prayer will remain as much a personal meditation as Sung Tongs is a social celebration. While both records highlight extremes of human expression, Young Prayer is far less universally appealing. It’s a record so consumed by one man’s solitude that its strengths may only be evident to Panda Bear himself. Whether or not he views this record as his defining moment of 2004 is of no consequence to us; we’ll always have the preceding night’s sonic jubilee to fondly recall.