‘odd, experimental and yet defiantly tuneful’ – Neill Dougan on Panda Bear‘s Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper
Talented people are so annoying. Here’s the rest of us average schmoes, toiling away in comically futile fashion trying to make something of ourselves, like an endearing but dim-witted child furrowing his brow in a doomed attempt to understand his multiplication tables. Meanwhile, talented people – y’know, people with actual skills and that – repeatedly churn out works of accomplishment and finesse, seemingly just to rub it in our faces. That’s not to suggest that they don’t sweat over what they do; they’re just better at it. The bastards.
We have the likes of Noah ‘Panda Bear’ Lennox very much in mind when we say this. Not content with being directly involved in two (not one, mind: that wouldn’t be good enough –no, two) of the best albums of 2007 (his own Person Pitch and Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam), he followed this up with a starring role in 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective’s best album and one of the finest of the last decade. Was he happy to leave it at this? No, because in 2011 he released another quality solo album in the form of Tomboy. Even leaving aside AC’s borderline-unlistenable Centipede Hz from 2012 (nobody’s perfect after all), that’s some strike rate. Surely Lennox is due a rest now. Get off the stage, mate. Let someone else have a go.
Well, no actually because here he is again, all floppy-fringed and healthy-looking (he lives in Lisbon, did you know that? Nice for some) with his fifth solo album Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, and blow me down if it isn’t a contender for the best work he’s done to date – a hypnotic, dreamy melange of droney synth experiments, hip-hop beats, soaring vocal harmonies and hook-laden pop nous.
So it is that opener ‘Sequential Circuits’ ensnares the listener with its understated synth squelching and reverb-soaked, call-and-response vocals. Like much of the album, Lennox’s vocals are so echoey and buried in the mix as to be almost impenetrable (if you like to be able to hear what a singer is singing, you’re going to really hate this record), and those words that are discernible almost defy attempts to extract meaning (“Follow the lead/Near as far as from a ship as an oar/Come on”). Practically devoid of beats (aside from some low-key jittery tick-tocks like the chirruping of electronic crickets), it’s an extremely subtle opener, one that almost passes you by one first listen, before repeated plays reveal it to be a perfectly pitched, deeply trippy mini-masterpiece.
If ‘Sequential Circuits’ is underplayed, first single ‘Mr Noah’ is the opposite, its gritty distorted synths, playful nonsense lyrics (“This dog got bit on the leg/He got a really big chip on the leg”) and irresistible beat conveying a distinct sense of joie de vivre. It’s a twisted pop gem and already – two songs in – what’s obvious is Lennox’s mastery of the studio (the production is uniformly eye-catching and distinctive) and of melody – the singer has an uncanny knack of welding an unexpected, leftfield vocal hook onto a piece of weird music that in lesser hands would defy any attempts to drag it into the realm of pop. This is evident again and again on the album – such as on ‘Crosswords’ in which, atop a funky, piano-led strut (with some gnarly electronic touches lurking just beneath the surface), Lennox essays a delirously soulful vocal and feel-good lyric (“You got it so good/So good, so good/Damn it, so good”). Or again on ‘Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker’, a propulsive, percussive effort with a tune seemingly made up entirely of dense, flittering electronic noise, on top of which Lennox again somehow stitches a hummable melody that has no right to be there.
Next up is a highlight, not only of the album, but Panda Bear’s career to date: ‘Boys Latin’ is absolutely superb, an off-kilter, rumbling synth riding atop a dubby beat underpinning Lennox’s inspired vocals. There’s no chorus as such to this deeply strange piece of music, but when the refrain hits in – its catchiness at odd with the foreboding lyrics detailing a “Dark cloud descending again” – it lifts the tune into another realm entirely.
‘Come To Your Senses’ opens with some electronic screeching (a not-entirely-pleasant reminder of Centipede Hz) before setting off upon on a driving percussive loop, squelchy bass and Lennox singing “Are you mad?” a lot – repetition being another hallmark of the album (if you don’t like to hear the same line sung over and over and over, you’re going to really hate this record).
‘Tropic of Cancer’ – gloriously melancholic, Lennox’s beautiful vocals sitting atop a lovely, lilting harp sample –and the Debussy-sampling ‘Lonely Wanderer’ are two more highlights. Coming as they do one after another, they bring some welcome respite to an album that’s pretty full-on and busy up to that point (although true to form ‘Lonely Wanderer’ does conclude in a cacaphony of electronic noise).
Those electronic hisses, squelches and fizzes are back in force on the strutting ‘Principe Real’, Lennox opting for distortion on his vocals for a change in place of his usual swathes of reverb as he delivers the rather lovely line “So close/As gentle as a sleeping baby boy”. This just leaves ‘Selfish Gene’ and ‘Acid Wash’ to close out the album. The former pays tribute to house music with its rhythmic stabs of synth, over which Lennox delivers lyrics that are by turns graceful (“Only you can fill those spaces”) and utterly baffling (“And they keep on rubbing in/How a proper chest is clean…With a wig on, that ain’t it”). It also features a truly life-affirming outro, Lennox harmonising with himself exquisitely as he tells us “You’ll trip up again, you’ll trip up again/Go get up again”. The latter closing track is a busy stomp, featuring dubstep drops, arpeggiated synths and frantic thrusts of electronic noise, on top of which Lennox somehow manages to once again graft a recognisable melody with his vocals.
It’s a suitably out-there conclusion to an album that’s singular and odd, experimental and yet defiantly tuneful. There are few acts who can pull off this trick with as much aplomb as Panda Bear – but, then again, there are few people quite as talented. The bastard.