Panda Bear: Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
Noah Lennox, the Lisbon-based musician who releases his solo work under the Panda Bear name, takes pains to avoid sending out bad vibes with his music. Following the radiant work of psychedelic pioneers like Brian Wilson and later innovators like Spacemen 3––one of whose members acts as producer here––he fashions songs that use sunshine to internalize emotional turmoil. “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper,” the fourth Panda Bear album, functions as a feel-good trip, banishing the January clouds with a new emphasis on drum production and return to the beautiful melodies that made 2007’s “Person Pitch” so lauded in the musical press.
If the album can be said to be about anything, it would be the enjoyments and anxieties that typify the experience of a successful artist. That is, the music touches on both the pleasure and precariousness of someone living a middle-class life who fears that stability might be short-lived. A good analogy for this might be the experience of taking a passenger ship on a capricious ocean: paradise that can turn into a hurricane at the slightest drop in the barometer. Indeed, Lennox has noted that several songs in the latter half of “Grim Reaper” resemble sea shanties, song that are intended as both celebrations and coping mechanisms for the hard life at sea. Accompanied by the lyrics, the music can’t help but assume a neurotic guise, a wall of sound protecting the psyche from an approaching tidal wave.
This ambivalence is, paradoxically, most evident in the happiest of the tracks, “Crosswords,” where the narrator reminds himself that “You got it so good. So good, so good.” Sheer repetition wrings the sincerity out of these nostrums. They begin to seem more like words of comfort than arrogance or complacency. Meanwhile, in “Boys Latin,” Lennox frets about looming dark clouds, but sounds arguably more chipper than in “Crosswords.” These emotional disconnects, which can be difficult to hear because of the album’s dense production, settle well with the happy but unsettled mood of the album.
It might be introspective and concerned with self-reflection, but it lacks any investigation into the sources of this anxiety. Insulated from both the class struggles erupting in his native United States and the unrest in Portugal over austerity, Lennox plays the apolitical game rather well, merely reflecting a kind of radically centrist approach to music. Its vagaries are purportedly “universal,” according to the artist’s own words. Sanitized and without specificity, Panda Bear’s writing makes a good companion for the music, tending to be masked by it and somewhat difficult to hear. At the same time, this insularity whitewashed to look like universalism is hardly aspiring to anything great or engaging in the concrete lives of its likely audience. Panda Bear sounds more and more distant the more you listen––distant in space, distant from his own time––and as a result can be profoundly dull, not to mention dreadfully formalistic.
Lyrics come second in Panda Bear songs, though. Despite the tracks here being far more straightforward than comparable ones on Person Pitch or Tomboy, the songs communicate primarily through musical shapes and flow. Drastic changes in tempo are largely absent. Beat-driven songs like “Mr. Noah” maintain a constant, anchored rhythm impervious to the electronic shimmering around it. Synths and strings provide the tranquil mood for “Tropic of Cancer,” which pushes along as a gentle lullaby before ending in an truly strange instrumental coda. After a blister of noise, “Lonely Wanderer” leads the listener into the end of the album with a reflective, piano-driven ballad. It’s all almost stiflingly consistent. Despite the threat of monotony, however, Lennox and company are able to offer enough intriguing sounds to end the album with a salvaging flourish or two. It’s music for relaxation and comfort.
Panda Bear’s music has always scrubbed the detail from the lyrics only to refill it beyond capacity with production and instrumentation. Like most psychedelia, its universalism is meant to be a gateway to personal reflection on behalf of the listener. On what they are meant to ponder, however––that much is still unclear. “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper” makes only halfhearted attempts at working through its emotional conflicts, but it makes for a fuzzy, indistinct, but pleasurable listen.