If there’s any record you should pay for as an assurance of audio quality, Tomboy by Panda Bear of the Animal Collective is it. It’s a beautiful-sounding record, brimming with subtleties that could get lost in a listless digital transfer. You wouldn’t want that. Without those subtleties, Tomboy, the most rarefied album in recent memory, would very nearly cease to exist.
This is a shame, following the kaleidoscopic Person Pitch. That album was just as calculated, but there, Panda Bear (née Noah Lennox) made no compromises; his moods had dimension and color, and shifted on [the simulation of] a whim. It established Panda Bear as a viable and distinct artistic identity, and not just a merchant of creative surplus, as side-projects are expected to be. The press notes for Tomboy speak of a similar command of contrast, but there is none. Like the faded silhouette on the cover, it’s all been compressed to a single shade of gray.
Good thing, then, that he released this one after Person Pitch and not before. Faith in the brand name will go a long way towards getting a captive audience for an album that, released by anyone else, would merit that dependable faint praise of “interesting” at best. If the words “Panda Bear” stenciled across the disc sleeve don’t do the trick, the Animal Collective association should. Is there anyone as unimpeachable in the alt-rock universe? Anyone so effortlessly able to court trust that there’s a method to their madness — while still remaining too stubbornly, heroically oblique for the majors? I can’t think of any. And after Sung Tongs, Feels, Strawberry Jam, and Merriweather Post Pavilion, they deserve that trust. Working through their sympathetic weirdness with each successive album has only gotten more rewarding.
Tomboy, however, isn’t quite so rewarding, but there’s that hope anyway, visible in the advance buzz for the titular lead single that described it as “sustaining a mood” — that is, monotonous. Which is not to say that mood-sustaining is dull by default. The 11 mood pieces of Tomboy are, though, and seemingly deliberately so.
Take that aforementioned title track. It starts with a tinny fanfare straight out of a Scandinavian power metal song, which is joined almost immediately by one of those synth vibratos usually reserved for the voiceboxes of Halloween decorations. The martial loop underneath drums up the expectation of something epic. And then, it stays there. It never takes off. Even when Lennox’s angelic vocal changes key and makes a motion to soar, it’s not a phrase later that he’s back to mood-sustaining. It’s all a big tease.
The same could be said of the whole album, much of which doesn’t even boast the halfway-hook of “Tomboy”. The few beats there are take their cues from ambient house: they’re so steadily propulsive, they fade away upon impact. The few builds there are, build to nothing, as on “Alsatian Darn”, which features tribal drums much like one of the Collective’s sustained paroxysms — say, “The Purple Bottle”, or “Runnin’ the Round Ball” — that exit quickly as if not to offend anyone.
To what end? Tomboy’s modesty is, reportedly, the product of extensive labor, and it shows; the album’s chief virtue is its rich sound, and that isn’t faint praise. Lennox’s commitment to detail is readily apparent. But perhaps it’s an overcommitment. He eschews legibility, of structure, melody, and ambient coherence, so as not to distract from details that sometimes cooperate — as on “You Can Count on Me”, where depth charge blasts rhythmically subsume the ongoing doggerel in a very trippy way — but usually don’t, wafting and overlapping with little perceivable purpose. You’re not likely to hear another record that’s at once so dense, and so diaphanous.
One thing on Tomboy is coherent, though: its glumness. Like a mopey introvert, it relishes generic eeriness (“Scheherazade”), deviates from moderato lassitude rarely, and shows only guarded mirth (“Surfer’s Hymn”, “Friendship Bracelet”). It will undoubtedly prompt the tireless work of faithful fans to redeem it, to uncover its secrets, its hidden logic — to piece together its many subtleties. As with many introverts, that work will be futile. My own project was to see if “Afterburner” was this album’s “Bros”, that unlikely 12-minute hit that disguised seismic shifts of tone and phrasing under insistent, incessant strumming — a miracle of modern pop. It wasn’t. And isn’t. (The score at the bottom reflects my faith that it someday might be.)
Sure, the wide-eyed uncertainty of Person Pitch is back; Panda Bear doesn’t really seem to “know we had a good time” on “Last Night at the Jetty”. But on Person Pitch, his insecurities played out on the panoramic canvas of his dreams. On Tomboy, he seems about half-awake, caught between the haziness of sleep and the defensiveness of waking life. This kind of stubborn ambivalence makes for boring and frustrating people; why should we tolerate it in music?