These songs don't rely on their words to stick sharply, but they do.
Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
Panda Bear, real name Noah Lennox, may have accidentally prematurely ruined his newest album, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, for a small handful of fans. For listeners who enjoy coming up with their own meanings for songs they hear – a faction that does indeed exist – Lennox’s recent revelation to The Fader of the truths behind Grim Reaper‘s songs might dampen the album experience. Of course, this problem could be avoided quite simply by just not reading the article; on the other hand, the thirteen songs comprising the album don’t rely on their words to stick as sharply as they do. Although the subject matter of Lennox’s lyrics, both in his solo career and within his revered group Animal Collective, is often quite deep, Grim Reaper continues his trend of obscuring his already cryptic words with seemingly infinite layers of sound, one of which includes his distinct voice. This instrument’s inherent ability to blur his message while shining brightly through his soundscapes remains key on Grim Reaper; that said, the album continues his previous effort Tomboy‘s upward trend of clearing the vocal fog of his breakthrough Person Pitch, thanks in no small part to a newfound volume and percussive influence from hip-hop.
Although Grim Reaper‘s gorgeously stagnant, watery opener “Sequential Circuits” might be seen as a purposeful throwback to the hazy, understated Person Pitch, Lennox quickly suggests this track to be a false start with his subsequent placement of “Mr. Noah” as the next song in line. Released late last year to extensive critical acclaim, “Mr. Noah” places Panda Bear closer to the dance floor than ever before while retaining his signature glee and playfulness. Lennox’s buoyant, ecstatic vocals seem to tell an incoherent story, but this only becomes apparent after many listens; the focus of this song, like on most of the album, is the shifting, warbly synths, surprisingly hefty percussive groove, and overall psychedelic sunshine swirl. Lennox’s vocal inflection, pitches, and tones play an important role in establishing this feel, but his actual sentiments take a backseat to all else, only emerging forward in the mix after repeated listens.
The fact that Lennox’s vocals are at all intelligible is actually quite a significant step forward in the Panda Bear catalog. Think back to Person Pitch, which contained moments, such as “Take Pills”, with lyrics that, despite being nearly indiscernible, bore significant depth and meaning. Grim Reaper improves on this prior tendency, ensuring that the doe-eyed, harp-led heartache of “Tropic of Cancer” weighs its tragic words and its melting instrumental equally. “Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker” and “Come to Your Senses” also skillfully balance what’s being said and what’s being heard, although it can be argued that, as is classic Panda Bear, the sound of these tunes’ vocals matters far more than their actual content. In particular, the latter’s cries of “Are you mad?” seem merely comical when aligned with the footwork of the underlying beats, an entertainingly novel percussive technique for Panda Bear.
Where lyrical clarity, vocal intensity, and hip-hop groove most fiercely align here is on second single and album highlight “Boys Latin.” This song has maybe the most readily audible lyrics of the album; that every word is accompanied with a lopsided echo accentuates just how tough it can be to know what Lennox is saying elsewhere. A listener seeking to make sense of the repeated refrain “Beasts don’t have a sec to think, but/we don’t appreciate a thing” might encounter a significant challenge doing so before reading that pesky Fader article, but these words are delivered sprightly and joyfully enough that their meaning doesn’t matter. The song’s other lyric, “There’s a dark cloud descending again/and a shadow moves in the darkness”, takes an intentionally murkier vocal turn, successfully paving a transition from faintly lighthearted to overwhelmingly ominous. This change is contained entirely in Lennox’s incredibly deft vocals; the jilting, synth-and-drum interlaced groove remains nearly the same throughout the song, one which entraps and resonates throughout.
Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper marks a slight sonic evolution for its creator, but still feels like it could only come from this sole source. It’s an idiosyncratic document from someone who might be staring death in the eyes, a weird position from which to be sending signals this colorful. If this is how death feels, what are we waiting for?