Nobody has a voice like Noah Lennox. The 36-year-old producer, drummer, and Animal Collective member sings with crystalline clarity, a resonance and calm nearly impossible to emulate. Through his clear, cavernous tenor, despite lying low in the mix, the artist known professionally as Panda Bear has carved a unique spot for himself in the music industry.
I know exactly where I was when I first heard “Bro’s,” the unbearably beautiful centerpiece of 2007’s absolutely incredible Person Pitch. That album created a new musical medium, with Lennox sculpting perfect pop songs using the language and techniques of ambient techno. Samples were perfectly chosen, and each song glided through an atmosphere so rich and dense that it feels like another world. It’s something impossible to replicate, and, smartly, Lennox has never tried.
Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, Lennox’s fifth album under the Panda Bear moniker, is certainly not Person Pitch. But it is a new, beautifully rendered collection of some of his most appealing songs to date. The biggest change in songcraft here is the addition of heavier, more distorted, and more percussive sounds. Take lead single “Mr Noah.” The melody, graced with an infectiously singable “eh-eh-eh-eh” descending line, is one of the strongest in the Panda Bear canon, but it’s paired with heavy hitting drums, a garbled and rippling bassline, and an incredibly unnerving sample of a dog whimpering. The disjunctive elements ultimately harmonize into something enigmatic, with a strong enough beat to keep the listener in lockstep.
The album features some truly joyous pieces of music. “Crosswords” surges with bright piano and delicate funk, and the melody of “Boys Latin” pulses like “Do Re Mi” processed through a supercomputer. “Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker” sounds like bossa nova played underwater with its thrilling syncopation bubbling under Lennox’s lilting melody. “Principe Real” features a pulsating synthesizer the likes of which have never been heard on a Panda Bear song. Yet, even the most pleasurable songs are undercut with anxiety.
The album is called Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, after all, and it definitely lives up to its name. Each song deals with the fear brought on by the approach of middle age, the pressures of family, and the fear of death and a wasted life. “Mr Noah” features lyrics about mad dogs and leg wounds, with somewhat nonsensical but striking and melancholic results. “Boys Latin” features Lennox looping two phrases over and over again, refusing to make a claim on which is better. Repetition is one of Lennox’s strengths; in “Come to Your Senses,” the question “Are you mad?” is repeated over and over again until the reply of “Yes, I’m mad” feels inevitable and full of conviction. The album’s deep malaise would be unbearable, but Lennox’s pairing of these darker thoughts with some of the most accessible, beat-driven instrumentals of his career results in an excellent balance of substance and style.
After seven excellent percussive tracks, the album settles down into an extended section of pure loveliness in a beautiful pair of songs called “Tropic of Cancer” and “Lonely Wanderer.” These tracks lack the excellent drum programming that was characteristic of those that came before them, instead hovering in contemplative bliss. These two tracks don’t have many elements to them, and they are long and static stretches of quiet, stately music. They are also two of the best songs that Lennox has ever written. This is particularly the case for “Tropic of Cancer.” The song, clocking in at six minutes long and featuring an extensive, rhythmically loose harp sample, features what is possibly Lennox’s finest vocal performance. His voice glides seamlessly through registers and intervals, never rising above a delicate sigh. The song features beautiful lyrics sung in an eerie calm. Lennox forgives disease for the damage it has done, for it is just trying to survive like the rest of us. It is a difficult subject to tackle, but “Tropic of Cancer” does it with poise and grace to spare. In “Lonely Wanderer,” Lennox faces the end over a gorgeous Debussy piano sample. These two tracks shift the album into otherworldly beauty, a kind of beauty wholly unprecedented in the Panda Bear canon.
Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is one of Lennox’s finest pieces of work, front to back. In the world of Panda Bear, fear and anxiety are best dealt with through a great beat, a gorgeous melody, and some unflinching honesty.