Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
If the notoriously sunny Noah Lennox has become obsessed with death, then maybe we need to reconsider our relationship to the great beyond. Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear) is best known as a founding member of Animal Collective, whose discography represents some of the very best experimental pop of the new millenium. Panda Bear's fifth solo album, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, takes the unease and claustrophobia of Animal Collective's most recent album, Centipede Hz, and strains it through a cheesecloth of wobbly dub and warped psychedelia. (The title, as well as the often repetitive tone of its music, is inspired by dub classics such as Augustus Pablo and King Tubby's King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown.) The result is Lennox's sharpest, poppiest, and most idea-packed LP to date—it's also his most explicitly personal record, not to mention one of the first truly great albums of 2015. But after a few listens, you may start to wonder whether it’s Panda Bear or the Reaper who's steering the ship.
Until now, I don't think anybody listened to Panda Bear (or Animal Collective) for the lyrics. The word "childlike" is often used to describe Lennox and, though a cliché, it describes how many listeners approach his music, too. You're not supposed to take children seriously, after all, and to be fair, Lennox has always seemed more interested in letting the listener dictate meaning rather than painting a particularly clear picture. ("I'm not trying to forget you/I just like to be alone" is a relatable sentiment, but it's still more Magic Eye than Manet in terms of clarity.)
after a few listens, you may start to wonder whether it’s Panda Bear or the Reaper who's steering the ship.
But with Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, Lennox, now 36 years old, is disarmingly upfront about his subject matter, and it's not all sunsets and daydreams. "Acid Watch," for instance, is dense, incandescent pop with syrupy vocals that float over squishy studio effects and clattering percussion. The palette is bright—maybe too bright to engage with directly—as if Lennox has bottled sunlight reflected from the ocean of his adopted home of Portugal, but the lyrics come from deep below the surface. "Laugh, the chasm" goes the chorus. It's a dare that becomes a mantra to repeat while staring into the face of infinity. "Boys Latin," another pop-oriented standout (the vocal melody, which oscillates between both audio channels and intelligibility, becomes oddly infectious), features lyrics that are equally unreassuring: "And a shadow moves in the darkness," sings Lennox.
This interplay between darkness and light, the ocean surface and ocean floor, drives Grim Reaper forward. There's "Tropic of Cancer," a torch song that only Panda Bear could have written, about Lennox wrestling with the sickness and death of a loved one. "It's all in the family/And then you sneak it all away" and "And you won't come back/You can't come back/You won't come back to it," he sings. Lennox lost his father to brain cancer in 2002 and the experience has floated through his music ever since, but never has his songwriting been so tragically pointed. There's no ambiguity here, only the gaping emptiness that the absence of a parent leaves behind.
On the flip-side, Lennox is a father himself now, and Grim Reaper's exploration of death often occurs within the context of his own family. "Crosswords" is about figuring things out as life moves along: "Stay there while I move/Stay scared while I improve," he sings, Hi-Liter synths bouncing in the backdrop. Later, when he repeats, "So good, so good/You got it so good," it's a reminder to himself that things are going all right, but you can also read it as message to his kids about how lucky they are.
Like Tomboy before it, Grim Reaper was co-produced by Spacemen 3's Pete Kember (a.k.a. Sonic Boom), who balances the album's experimental sounds with pop economy. For an album that wrestles with such specific tragedy and existential angst, there’s an alacrity and electricity that runs through all but the most somber tracks. It's a balance that keeps the songs from being pulled down into truly dark places. You don't get the sense that Lennox is depressed, so much as coming to terms with life's ebb and flow. "Would you look back?" Lennox asks as the synths of "Lonely Wanderer" spiral around him, "Was it worthwhile?" The questions are never resolved, but between the ecstasy of his voice and unease of his lyrics, Lennox hits on an inconvenient reality: maybe we'll never know.
Nathan Reese is a staff writer for Complex Pop Culture. Follow him @NathanReese.