At the dawn of the last decade, Panda Bear was on top of the world. With his hugely influential 2007 solo breakthrough Person Pitch, Noah Lennox had perfected the art of sunny loop-based psychedelia, spawning legions of sampler-toting imitators and birthing an entire subgenre that ended up changing the face of popular indie music in the process. And as the man behind the biggest, most accessible songs on Animal Collective’s 2009 magnum opus and mainstream crossover moment Merriweather Post Pavilion, he had become pretty much the closest thing to a bona fide rock star that the indie world had to offer.
After that, Panda Bear had options. If he wanted to, he probably could’ve ridden the MPP wave to something approaching real crossover pop success. Or, on the other end of the spectrum of possibility, he could have done what the rest of Animal Collective did a year later with Centipede Hz, seemingly rejecting mainstream popularity by leaning hard into bugged-out avant-garde freakiness and crafting a still-underrated album so willfully obtuse we need to accept the possibility that we may never fully understand it. But Lennox picked a third option: to just keep on doing his thing, letting the endless cycles of blog hype wash over him and recede like the tide. He made Tomboy, which came out 10 years ago today.
On Person Pitch, Panda Bear served up tracks like “Bros” and “Good Girl / Carrots,” 10-plus-minute sonic odysseys bursting with all the joy and life of the sun-drenched Lisbon apartment they were recorded in. But on Tomboy, he boiled the extended vibe-outs down to bite-sized pop songs. “The focus of what I wanted to do with the new songs was essentially take that soup of sound and just clench it in your fist, just compress it really intensely to get short little songs,” he told the Huffington Post. And he did it using the most classic instrument in modern pop music vocabulary, the guitar, explaining that he “got tired of the severe parameters of using samplers. Thinking about Nirvana and the White Stripes got me into the idea of doing something with a heavy focus on guitar and rhythm.”
That’s not to say that Tomboy actually sounded anything like Nirvana or the White Stripes. It didn’t really sound like anything else, and it still doesn’t. Despite their relative brevity, the album’s songs — mixed by Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember of neo-psychedelic legends Spacemen 3, who between this and his work on MGMT’s Congratulations was becoming a favorite among the indie world’s biggest psych-pop stars — are slow, droning mantras that proceed with all the hushed reverence of devotionals and the stretched-out majesty of pop songs slowed down by 800%. But Lennox’s boyish vocals are more prominent than ever before, even when his voice is echoing and looped and layered on top of itself, becoming yet another textural element in the album’s amniotic soup. And beneath the ever-present haze, Tomboy‘s hooks and insistent rhythmic pulse are undeniable. Think of the clear, plainspoken melody of “Last Night At The Jetty” or the almost boom-bap beat threaded through “Slow Motion.” Despite the experimentalism, seemingly almost despite himself, Panda Bear was still making the most accessible music of his solo career thus far, music that was legible as pop.
Lennox’s angelic choirboy voice and his penchant for harmony have often earned him comparisons to Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, and he leaned into the comparison both sonically and thematically on Tomboy, winking at listeners with song titles like “Surfer’s Hymn” and “Last Night At The Jetty.” But if Tomboy is beach music, it’s the beach on a gray, overcast day, with Lennox’s vocal harmonies cutting through the murk like sunbeams through the clouds. The sweet melodies are there, but the exhilarating ebullience of Person Pitch is gone. “I did Person Pitch in our apartment in Lisbon, which is three floors up, so there’s a lot of light that came in and you could look out across the city. With Tomboy, I finally found a studio space here, but in contrast it was down two floors in this basement,” Lennox told The Skinny. “There was no light, it was really dark and it was kind of lonely.”
That sense of ambivalence makes its way into the lyrics on Tomboy, too. Panda Bear has long been Animal Collective’s least cryptic and most open-hearted songwriter; “My Girls” and “Brother Sport,” Lennox’s two standouts on Merriweather Post Pavilion, are about his desire to provide for his wife and daughter and consoling his younger brother after the death of their father, respectively. Tomboy once again focuses on the pressures of fatherhood. “Know you can count on me,” Lennox insists over and over on opening track “You Can Count On Me,” his words hanging in the air, before correcting himself: “Know at least I’ll try.” Lennox’s desire to be the steadfast rock of his family is clear, but he can’t stop the doubt from creeping in on “Surfer’s Hymn”: “Out on the water/ A rider can ready/ Though waves come crashing/ A good board can steady/ I wouldn’t ever want to bet upon the balance on what’s going on/ Would I? Would I? Would I? Would I?”
Lennox keeps questioning himself like that throughout Tomboy. “I know I know I know” he repeats on “Last Night At The Jetty,” before waffling, “Didn’t I?/ Didn’t I?/ Didn’t I have a good time?/ I know I/ I know I/ I know I had a real time now/ Who could say I’m not just as I was?” On the title track, he asks himself, “What’s my life like?/ What’s my work like?/ How do I pass time?” And on “Alsatian Darn,” another album highlight, Lennox struggles to reconcile his dual identities as an individual and a father: “What to do when the things that I want don’t allow/ For the handful of mouths that I’m trying to feed/ Got to do what you’ve got to do/ What you’ve got to do/ What you’ve got to do.”
“A lot of the songs are about something that’s in conflict with itself, so the image of a ‘tomboy’ has become the overseeing figure as far as the group of songs go,” Lennox explained prior to the release of the album, getting at the heart of what drives his music. Panda Bear’s best work has always come from the tension between, and merging of, Lennox’s warring instincts. There’s the guy who comes up with the beautiful vocal harmonies duking it out with the guy who slathers them with spaceship noises and reverb. On Tomboy, an album that’s explicitly focused on the intersection of Lennox’s different personae, he might have just achieved true balance between the two sensibilities for the first, and arguably last, time.
Lennox has released plenty of great albums since, and even as Animal Collective’s critical cachet has waned in the years since Merriweather Post Pavilion, Panda Bear’s charms have never lost their luster. Most people would likely still say that Person Pitch is Panda Bear’s best album, and while Tomboy might be even better, it’s hard to argue the point too much. But even if Tomboy isn’t necessarily the best, it is the most focused — and, in a way, the most uniquely Panda Bear album that Panda Bear has made, the most succinct encapsulation of his entire aesthetic project. Tomboy is a hazy, dreamlike portrait of a man pulled in different directions, full of uncertainty, who resolves to just let it all wash over him and keep doing what he has to do. It’s an insular album that makes a day at the beach sounds like a dark night of the soul and vice versa. It makes pop music weird and weird music pop and renders the distinction between the two irrelevant. It’s Tomboy, and it’s Panda Bear.