Noah Lennox aka Panda Bear has been making music for a long time. Nine albums and a bunch more EPs with Animal Collective, and counting Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, five solo full lengths as well. That’s a wealth of material, made all the more interesting by how his sonic and lyrical themes have evolved over the last 15 or so years. The one thing he’s never been is complacent, and that’s served him particularly well on landmark records such as 2007’s Person Pitch and 2009’s Animal Collective release Merriweather Post Pavilion. Though each new piece of music stands alone as its own unique statement, we have reached a point where there are certain qualities that define a Panda Bear song. Things like samples, reverb, psychedelia and overdubbed vocal harmonies have become par for the course, it’s just the way they’re presented that has changed.
Following the dark, dub-infested minimalism that was 2011’s Tomboy, it’s something of a relief that Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is a bit more well-rounded, albeit still quite serious affair. Singles like “Mr. Noah” and “Boys Latin” bounce, swirl and ensnare you with their hooks before you have the chance to realize you’ve been sucked in, the words often so obscured with reverb that you’re never fully sure what they’re saying but sing along anyways. That’s part of the charm. Yet when a phrase does come across with clarity, as on the latter track with the line, “Dark cloud has descended again,” it turns a seemingly joyful moment to one of dread. Such is the dichotomy that permeates much of the record, as Lennox embraces the love and serenity that growing older and having a family can bring, while at the same time wrestling with the fear of dying and leaving them all behind. The album title itself spells that out explicitly when the lyrics don’t.
At it’s heart however, Grim Reaper seeks to establish an overall focus on good triumphing over evil and finding the pleasures in life, one day at a time. The two tracks at the center of the record, “Come to Your Senses” and “Tropic of Cancer,” take a break from the frenetic sound collages that dominate much of the album to offer moments of sobering contemplation and outright beauty. On the former, Lennox chants, “Are you mad?” over and over, each time with a slightly different intonation, as if he’s trying to suss out what those three words even mean before finally deciding, “Yeah, I’m mad.” With the latter, harps and pianos plink with a heavenly sort of grace, as Lennox considers life after death and in doing so revives some of the memories of his own departed father from more than a decade ago. It’s a bit of a callback to his 2004 solo debut Young Prayer, which was created as a tribute to him.
Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper probably won’t be remembered as the best Panda Bear album, though it is his most accessible and all-encompassing to date. Thanks to its meticulous sequencing and reflective themes, it’s the sort of record that takes you on a journey and leaves you off in a much better place than where you started, even if it took some serious chaos to get there. Chalk up another big win for Mr. Noah.