Backtrack

Backtrack: Panda Bear Person Pitch

Sam Hockley-Smith | July 3, 2013 - 12:12 pm

Growing up, I tricked myself into thinking I was an idealist. I don’t think this was especially uncommon for people my age. When you’re a teenager, you think you’re ready for adulthood, because the promises that adulthood holds — doing what you want for a living, having your own place, living the dream, whatever that dream might be — seem so great that you can’t imagine being anything but 100 percent happy. The reality of adult life is not really that. There’s happiness and freedom, sure, but there’s always the next thing to strive for.

When Panda Bear, aka Noah Lennox’s Person Pitch first came out in 2007, I was an adult, but I still felt like a kid. Everyone around me really loved this album. They treated it like breathing, or like reading a book that gave them new insight into themselves. For a little while there, it felt like a religion. Most of these people were just a couple years older than me, but their embrace of an album that featured, among other things: treading water as percussion, vocals that sound like they were recorded for a Christmas record, an owl hooting and lots of bells and shakers, pointed to an understanding I just didn’t have yet. It took me awhile to get it. I always liked it, but seeing what other people saw in it was just beyond my grasp. The fact that rational people were able to give themselves over to it so completely was enviable.

When I got it, though, I really got it. I remember bugging out over the liner notes, which basically map out a specific strain of listening with no context other than Lennox really liked this stuff and it informed the music he made: Wolfgang Voigt, Madlib, Jay Dee, Black Dice, Beach Boys, Aphex Twin, Nina Simone, Enya, Robert Hood, Daft Punk … I’m just scanning the liner notes and grabbing names at random here. It’s pretty normal for every artist to namecheck Jay Dee now, but in 2007 it was a revelation. It was a dedication from Panda Bear to his influences, but it also informed how to listen to his music. Once I discovered the Jay Dee connection, I stopped looking at Person Pitch as a straightforward psychedelic record, and started treating it as a blunted, album-length hymn to growing up and holding on.

Right around this same time, a close friend of mine worked in a record store and managed to snag a cardboard blow-up of the Person Pitch album cover, which features a crew of kids in a small pool, surrounded by a lion, a seal, a gorilla, a panda (of course), a pigeon on a stick, a fox, a cat, a koala and an assortment of other incongruous wild animals. This thing sat on the wall above his TV for over five years. I think it’s still there. On one particularly hot day, he had a cable guy come in to fix his cable, the guy took one look at the poster, and asked, completely straight faced, “Is that a real picture?” Even an absurd album cover feels real in Panda Bear’s world.

Person Pitch and its follow up Tomboy are the most talked about Panda Bear records, and they’re the ones that catapulted him into a world where it made sense for him to sing on a Daft Punk album, a Zomby album, a Pantha du Prince album and a Ducktails 12-inch — bringing his ray-of-light vocals to projects that needed that extra touch of angelic clarity — but there are other Panda Bear albums too. I think, to have context for Person Pitch, it’s worth spending some time with the emotionally difficult Young Prayer, which I won’t get into too much here, but is worlds away from the Panda Bear we’re familiar with.

Like Animal Collective’s Campfire Songs, which I wrote about last week, Young Prayer is mostly emotive, not lyric focused. It was intended as a gift to his father who was sick and passed away before being able to hear the finished version. In an interview in Wire with Simon Reynolds, Lennox said: “With Young Prayer, I wanted to tell him that he had taught me really well. I wanted to be like, ‘It’s been really good hanging out and learning from you, you’ve been a really good man and set a good example.” The fact that this quote exists in plain site on the Young Prayer Wikipedia page is rough. It’s a devastating quote because of its absolute, unfiltered clarity, which is something Lennox would carry into Person Pitch and beyond.

When you lose a parent, or any loved one really, blurry emotions don’t seem so blurry anymore. Decisions you used to have a hard time making get a whole lot easier. It doesn’t make you a better person, exactly, it just makes you a more defined person. It allows for more honesty. More clarity of vision, whatever that vision might be. Life becomes much bigger than it was, but your focus narrows too. Without Young Prayer, Person Pitch wouldn’t exist as it is, and those Animal Collective albums that so gracefully grappled with growing older: Feels, Strawberry Jam, Merriweather Post Pavilion, wouldn’t be what they are.

Person Pitch is the sound of a guy that’s figured it out. Don’t bother defining “it,” because it’s not that easy. On “Bros” Lennox sings, “I’m not trying to forget you, I just like to be alone, come and give me the space I need,” and then later, “Who are you to tell me how, when you’ve problems of your own, I do love you, and I want to hold on to you for always.”

There’s an important message of acceptance here. I don’t mean that in a hippie-dippy We Are All One On This Beautiful Earth way, but more in a way that acknowledges that life might seem short, but it’s also really fucking long. Long enough that we all make terrible mistakes and hurt people for no reason, or for what seems like good reason. When you’re young, everything unforgivable is forever unforgivable, but part of growing up is learning how to let go and love people under difficult circumstances. It’s a sappy, idealist way to think, but only because it’s so hard to embrace. Being good is hard, writing songs that make being good and honest at all costs desirable and important is even harder.