Album of the Week: Panda Bear – ‘Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper’

12.01.15

For all the talk prompted about 'Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper' being an album about growing older and increasingly facing the prospect of mortality, let alone the seemingly overt suggestiveness of its title, Animal Collective founding member and drummer Noah Benjamin Lennox’s latest effort is arguably his loudest, if not most sonically dense, chaotic, colorful, and playful.

Once again mixed by Pete Kember (formerly Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3), and by Noah’s own admission taking a more sample-based approach, it finds the now experienced songwriter reaching back to the spirit of his self-titled debut and its follow-up, 'Young Prayer', before picking up the focused energy of his breakout album 'Person Pitch' on the way back, and then stopping to acknowledge 'Tomboy' for the inevitably contemplative, mature, and understatedly beautiful type of post-success album that it was, moving on from there as a departure point.

In short, 'Grim Reaper' sounds like the kind of album we should expect to have come from Panda Bear at this point, and it’s filled with references to his entire back catalogue. Nevertheless, it is at the very least a welcome meeting of expectations, and, in asserting his musical identity and reputation, it also firmly cements – as if this needed doing yet again – Lennox as a neo-psychedelic pop genre songwriter.

Not surprisingly for such a vibrant and dynamic collection of songs, the leading singles for ‘Grim Reaper’ are also its most conventional – at least, 'conventional' within the context of Panda Bear’s output. It’s Mr Noah and Boys Latin that will no doubt jog memories of past Panda Bear (and probably some Animal Collective) material, and they feature Lennox’s vocals as prominent in the mix, but it’s really the rest of the tracks on the album that make it what it is.

Opener Sequential Circuits more or less sets the standard, with its controlled jumble of incongruently layered viscous textures, but Crosswords and Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker enhance the formula of these dense and disarrayed compositions with feeling and thematic purpose, introducing melodies that – though cut up, elongated, distorted, and whatnot – are infectious. Elsewhere, Come To Your Senses offers up another possible palatable but still-of-interest future album single on par with Noah and Latin, and Lonely Wanderer improves on the earlier relative stagnation of Tropic of Cancer with a gorgeous piano loop backing up some of Lennox’s most haunting vocals.

Interestingly, Principe Real, Selfish Gene, and Acid Wash, which are three of the most animated songs in an already lively and spirited album, collectively close it out in a wash of saturated ambience, with rich synths and samples backed by thick bass and deep beats. Notwithstanding the bittersweet and introspective feel of closer Wash, if the themes of death and mortality were indeed supposed to drive ‘Grim Reaper,’ they’ve been for the most part limited to Lennox’s lyrical concerns that are to be found or interpreted throughout the album, and have been cloaked and possibly overwhelmed by the subliminally smorgasbord nature of its music.

Actually, this isn’t the first time Lennox has addressed death and pain through the lens of Panda Bear, and his attitude towards addressing such experiences has been consistent as far back as ‘Young Prayer,’ namely manifesting somewhere in between hopeful and nonchalant defiance – something that is found and felt throughout this album in spades.

8/10

Domino release 'Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper' on January 12th 2015 (pre-order).