After the mild reception for Animal Collective’s latest record, 2012’s Centipede Hz, and the unanimous appraisal of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Noah Lennox’s last two albums as Panda Bear, 2011’s Tomboy and the near-classic Person Pitch from 2007, it’s come to the point that the band’s fans anticipate Panda Bear records more fiercely than the group’s efforts. They have begun to identify Lennox as the primary creative soul of the group, and whether or not that’s accurate has become irrelevant in the hype for his newest album, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. Lennox has cultivated a reputation for quality that rivals that of his longtime band, and if he hasn’t eclipsed their popularity yet, it’s probably only a matter of time.
Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is the sound of an established artist both comfortable and discontented. Lennox reinvents his popular sound to a degree that reveals both an attachment to the past and an eagerness to grow and expand the conventions he’s built. The album is laced with the usual Panda Bear trappings, key characteristics that define his signature style: deep reverb, playful vocal harmonies, abstract lyrics. But Lennox also invests more in the cold, dissociative power of electronic instrumentation and ambient noise, taking the melodic chaos of Animal Collective and pushing it to the edge. Lennox’s work with Animal Collective and the cleaner, more conventional sound of Tomboy and Person Pitch is layered and multi-dimensional, of course, but on Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, he rips and tears his sound into noisy disorder in a way he’s never done before. Since the beginning of his career, Lennox’s best music has put his beautiful, haunting melodies centerstage, but here they’re more obscured and deformed than ever, making for an equally difficult and rewarding listen.
It once again shows that Lennox has a far greater imagination than the average songwriter or producer. The heavier reliance on electronics doesn’t affect the songwriting as much as it does the texture and the sonic construction of the music, an element of pop songcraft which Lennox has been toying with since the early years of Animal Collective. On Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, Lennox embeds hooks and melodies under layers of obfuscating effects, taking whole audio tracks and soaking them in reverb, chorus and phasers, then caking them in static and distorted noise. The effect recalls the dreamy alternative dance music of Saint Etienne, Happy Mondays and Primal Scream, who each took timid vocal melodies, studio-altered samples and typical instrumentation and floated them over a current of propulsive drum loops, fusing retro rock with then-burgeoning electronic dance music. The same method here results in the album’s buoyant centerpiece “Come to Your Senses”, but there are small tastes of alternative dance music throughout, as in the sunny chillwave synths of “Principle Real” and “Acid Wash” and in the steadily thumping beat of “Mr Noah”. Pair these tracks with Panda Bear’s signature caustic lullabies — represented here by “Tropic of Cancer” and “Lonely Wanderer”, both the least digitized and most like classic Panda Bear on the album — and the static electronic noise that acts as the music’s exoskeleton, and you have Lennox’s most challenging work to date, and one that’s no less singular.
That’s perhaps the most striking quality of Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, that it’s one of the most forward-thinking and progressive of Panda Bear’s long list of projects. Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, their most acclaimed record, took a look back at the floaty soundscapes of XTC’s Skylarking and the pure pop ethos of late-era Beach Boys, while Tomboy drenched itself in the nostalgic wash of warm vocal melodies and reverberating guitar; Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, in contrast, seeks to alienate Lennox from his comfort zone as much as possible, and that means pushing himself into the future. There’s a sense of adventure and uncertainty that was missing on Centipede Hz, but as usual, Lennox, out on his own, jumps in with both feet. The stylistic transition won’t hit everyone the same way, and the album is bound to become his most divisive record to date, but it’s good to hear that an artist with the track record and long-standing popularity of Panda Bear is still willing to take chances and put the effort in to make them work.