Sometimes when I listen to Animal Collective I feel like I’m peering through a kaleidoscope into heaven, and other times I’m pretty sure I’m vomiting through a fault line into hell. Setting aside the question of whether that disconnect is intentional, it at least seems unusual. Like every band hailed as game-changing innovators, Animal Collective are incredibly polarizing. I often have strong opinions about acts like that — I will heartily defend Radiohead to the point of caricature, and I’ll just as passionately take a dump on Death Grips — but I find myself somewhere in the middle where Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Geologist, and Deakin are concerned. To put it another way, I often find their songs inspiring on an individual basis, but the cumulative effect of their albums is a kind of nauseous fatigue. (My quick take on their discography, so you can see who you’re dealing with: I can take or leave their early work, I think the convergence of stylistic innovation and pop smarts on Sung Tongs and Feels represents their career peak, I found Strawberry Jam to be a queasy disappointment, I appreciated the achievement of Merriweather Post Pavilion but mostly only listen to “My Girls” anymore, and I thought Centipede Hz was refreshingly aggressive and unfairly maligned for not being Merriweather Post Pavilion.)
My Animal Collective ambivalence is tempered significantly where Panda Bear’s solo work is concerned. Noah Lennox’s oblique, harmonious psych-pop experiments position him as the friendly Paul McCartney to Avey Tare’s more jagged John Lennon, and I’m more of a McCartney cornball when forced to choose. Still, despite the childlike wonder that courses through his music, it doesn’t surprise me that his kids don’t really get it. As a grown adult I sometimes find Lennox’s work too cerebral for its own good — I tend to get lost in his albums, and not in the good way — but my needle more often tips over from appreciation to enjoyment when exploring Lennox’s four prior solo LPs, all of which are marvelous in their own way.
I’ve only recently encountered the lo-fi synth-gurgle odyssey that is Panda Bear’s self-titled debut, released six years before Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs breakthrough; it’s a charming, shambolic piece of work, a promising batch of doodles from a guy who would later give us Sistine Chapels of sound. Young Prayer, the spare, intimate set of shapeless folk songs Lennox recorded for his dying father in 2004, was both haunting and strikingly gorgeous — Sung Tongs as performed by angels instead of feral creatures. 2007’s Person Pitch, generally considered his masterpiece, operated in a whole different dimension, spinning Brian Wilson’s sunbeam melodies into humongous, heavenly loops. That album’s genius is not lost on me, but I have even more affection for 2011 follow-up Tomboy. That one is darker and more minimal, clipping and twisting Person Pitch’s infinite swirls into compact, garbled bursts. It was Panda Bear’s most immediate, rhythmically charged release, veering closer to conventional songwriting without compromising the feeling of otherworldly adventure. It was also the best thing he’s released, last year’s fantastic Daft Punk collaboration “Doin’ It Right” notwithstanding.
In other words, up until now Panda Bear’s music has only gotten better and better. Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper is his first LP to buck that trend, but only just barely. What we have here is not a disappointing drop-off a la Phoenix’s Bankrupt!, which felt like one of the world’s best bands on autopilot. Panda Bear is a different kind of artist than Phoenix, and Meets The Grim Reaper is a way different kind of album than Bankrupt! — less overtly poppy, brainier, better for contemplating elephant dung at a museum than soundtracking car commercials. Despite a larger public profile than most experimental musicians, Lennox is still making the musical equivalent of art-house pictures. While indie-rock acts with recognizable names have become more and more bankable, Panda Bear has become something like Paul Thomas Anderson. Both artists routinely churn out works so personal and dreamlike that they verge on inscrutable, yet they remain eagerly anticipated by an artfully high-minded audience because they approach pleasure centers from sideways angles. Their work demands to be chewed, not just swallowed. In those terms, this latest batch of songs might be Lennox’s Inherent Vice: less obviously a masterpiece than its immediate predecessors, but still so alluring that you’ll want to keep coming back to make sense of its charms. Grim Reaper is probably not going to blow open the doors to a new fan base, but those already in Lennox’s thrall will marvel as he finds unexplored corners of the terrain he’s spent the past decade staking out.
Like any Panda Bear release, Grim Reaper rewards repeat visits; there’s simply too much going on to grasp it all in one swoop, especially since the album is less focused than anything he’s ever done. Rather than stunning variations on a single aesthetic, Lennox’s latest is a tour de force built from playful bouncing squelches (“Mr. Noah“), ominous Drive soundtrack synth ripples (“Boys Latin“), dreamy harp arpeggios (“Tropic Of Cancer“), and neoclassical piano spirals (“Lonely Wanderer”). It’s a splatter of ideas, sometimes painted in impressionistic strokes, other times crisply visceral. The music often segues from airy, percussion-devoid passages to a dazzling array of beats, the main connective threads being Lennox’s signature one-man choir, the arsenal of synths that undergirds him, and omnipresent electronic clatter that suggests the Grim Reaper might actually be the smoke monster from Lost. Those semi-constants are more than enough to tie together the shapeless opening swells of “Sequential Circuits,” the liquid groove of “Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker,” the video-game chamber pop of “Selfish Gene,” and the spongy, seven-minute head-bob “Come To Your Senses.” No song sounds quite like the others, but they all sound like Panda Bear.
Conceptually the strands are much looser. For an album whose title suggests an encounter with Death himself, it’s significantly brighter than Tomboy and more wide-awake than anything since the sober Young Prayer; oddly enough, Lennox’s music sounds most lucid when dealing with death. It’s that time-tested contrast of downcast lyrics set to upbeat music; the ethereal schmaltz-waltz “Tropic Of Cancer” finds Lennox almost crooning, “You won’t come back/ You can’t come back.” Many other songs reference injury, illness, and dark clouds descending, and “Lonely Wanderer” urges listeners to look back at your life’s work and ask, “Was it worthwhile?” Closer “Acid Wash” declares victory against “the dark” and “the deep.” All those references took some sussing out; Lennox’s words tend to be obscured by sound effects and cadence, and the sounds are rarely as dour as the subject matter suggests. Lennox has delivered as colorful and adventurous a take on our imminent demise as Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! But where the Flying Lotus album was the sound of a visionary composer continuing to push his music into unexplored realms, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper feels like an artist doubling back through his discography — traipsing and gliding through the world he created, asserting his ownership of the expansive subgenre he founded.
Lennox seems far too chill for that kind of aggression, but even if he’s just doing his thing oblivious to context, he has every reason to mark his territory. Another thing about massively influential musicians is that by definition they influence a lot of other musicians, and for a while there, all of indie rock seemed set on emulating Animal Collective — especially after Merriweather Post Pavilion and “My Girls” tricked the burgeoning festival scene into thinking they’d found their next ascendant indie-rock name brand. The race to recreate that Merriweather sound resulted in a glut of unmemorable-to-unlistenable late-MySpace refuse, the likes of Gauntlet Hair and Candy Claws and Reptar polluting the musical landscape and blocking Animal Collective’s shine in the process. (Call it the Pearl Jam Effect.) On my first few listens, Grim Reaper suffered from Animal Collective imitation fatigue. By no fault of his own, Lennox’s tics had become clichés then cycled out of style due to overexposure. But those sounds caught on in the first place because Lennox and his mates wrung so much wonder from them. Further examination of Grim Reaper revealed that Lennox’s space-age psychedelic wizardry remains magical as long as he’s the one behind the curtain. His treatise on mortality will take you to heaven, hell, and all sorts of netherworlds in between.
Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper is out 1/13 on Domino.