Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

by Justin Pearson Rating:8.5 Release Date:2015-01-12

Animal Collective member Noah Lennox, also known as Panda Bear when flying solo is often described as an 'experimental' musician. His music is mostly identifiable by looped melodies and reverbed vocals that have an instantly familiar Beach Boys quality. This quality is still here in a sense, but where 2011's Tomboy felt more of a piece and was concerned with tighter song structures leaning toward pop, the follow-up, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, doesn't share the same connectedness.

The songs here feel more like a collection, but it doesn't hamper the effect since they work just fine on their own, as if charting their own course through new territory. It's Panda Bear through and through, yet you can't help but notice a change in direction... or a lack of direction. Things feel looser this time, like he's discovered an even bigger freedom to explore.

There are some typical sounding Panda Bear moments like 'Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker'. The song is awash with the sense of confidence which colors the best of his work. 'Come to Your Senses' has an easy beat with the laidback vibe of his more accessible songs, which is just fine if you're looking for more of what you've been accustomed to on Lennox's past output.

However, where the album really shines is in the less comfortable, more 'experimental' parts. Take 'Boys Latin', for example. You could almost call it a reverse explosion with its frantic opening: a breaking-apart of vocals, subsequently reined in with a sense of calm as they come together to form the lines: "Dark clouds descended again/ and a shadow moves in the darkness." Subject matter such as this shouldn't feel so good but the initial confusion followed by the solvent of the melody that takes shape makes for a satisfying equation; it's a problem that feels worked out by the time it's over.

The goose-bump inducing 'Tropic of Cancer' is a flat-out masterpiece, and proof of what Lennox is capable of when branching out stylistically and trading his comfort zone for the ache of reality. Apparently referring to his father's death from cancer, this is where Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper head-on, yet the battle is fought with a gorgeous simplicity which calms with a lullaby atmosphere supplied by a harp as the backdrop. As he reflects on the past, all one can do is lend a sympathetic ear to absorb the hurt, filtered through a soft cloud of catharsis where the pain is diffused out in the ether: "When they said he's ill/ laughed it off as if it's no big deal/ What a joke to joke, no joke."

Another uncharacteristic turn happens on 'Lonely Wanderer'. Swirls of classical, patterned piano drip and moisten the canvas his soft, tentative vocals paint before quivering in a final bow, then starting all over again to perform the same dance. The entire song feels like a dreamy ballet on repeat and ranks with some of his best stuff. When he asks "Was it worthwhile?" near the end of the song, the answer would be a resounding yes.

The last time Panda Bear inspired me to clap was on the infectious 'Comfy in Nautica' from the excellent Person Pitch album. I didn't think it would happen again but 'Principe Real' has proven to be just as drenched with a happiness reveling in its own certitude. It's an arms-in-the-air dance track which would be out of place on any other album he's put out so far, but within the controlled chaos of this record it fits perfectly.

Personally, this is one of the albums I've been looking forward to most this year and it doesn't disappoint. It takes a few listens to really sink into, but it's worth the effort. What we have here is another stellar entry in the Panda Bear catalogue. If this is what it's like to meet the Grim Reaper I want to do it often.

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