Review Summary: I believe it was the philosopher Tare who told us: "Feeling is good."
I know what you, omnipresent imagined counterpoint, might be thinking: “Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, Panda Bear.” But what if it was? So Tomboy
is a homogenous record, its eleven songs a steady mix of jagged, attacking guitars and that one damn sunshine and rainbows harmony. But it is a dynamic record as well, alive, moving, intimate. I admit, what sold me on this beast was that first crack of “Slow Motion,” that snap that slices through the track’s as-yet-developed, unstoppable groove. It’s a jarring moment, a part that confirms what the broadened remasters of “You Can Count on Me” and “Tomboy” suggest: that Panda Bear still has the creative ingenuity that made him Animal Collective’s most fascinating member for the past half decade. It’s difficult to not appreciate the delicious irony of Noah opening Tomboy
with “Know you can count on me” when the time between the release of the lackluster first cut of “Tomboy” and the album’s own highly anticipated release date had been just
long enough to let doubts of Tomboy
’s quality seep in. But there was no need for worry. Tomboy
is every bit as good as it promised to be, and more.
The “as good” bit comes from the songs. Prerelease singles “Slow Motion,” “Alsatian Darn” and “Last Night at the Jetty” rightfully generated quite a buzz for Tomboy
. In their unmixed form, they were terrific, showing a Panda Bear not so dissimilar from the Panda Bear whose Brian Wilson influence drenched Merriweather Post Pavilion
and Fall Be Kind
. When they're mixed
, however, they acquire new, exciting textures, filling the open space evoked by Lennox’s ever-present reverb. Producing credit goes to Sonic Boom, who earns it by deepening the low end of Panda Bear’s tracks and letting Lennox’s voice cover every inch of the record, creating Tomboy
’s lush wall of sound. As he did on Person Pitch
, Lennox trades in a beach-y, surf-y, what-have-you vibe. But unlike Person Pitch
is immediate, as though Panda Bear has, for the first time in his solo career, allowed himself to come in close, singing not from a distance but vibrantly next to us.
And here, he’s a little exposed. The most peculiar insult lobbied at Tomboy
thus far is that it’s soulless, a claim that denies the album’s anxious personality and the way it negotiates its “Daily Routine,” responsibility/aging angst. Unlike Merriweather Post Pavilion
, which used its warm sound as a sort of blissful denial of its anxieties, Tomboy
uses its palette to illustrate and address its fears. The title track, for example, finds Panda Bear stressing the lyric “Take my life” over a mechanical minor-key drone, grimly coloring Lennox’s complicated feelings towards fraternity, so deftly illustrated on “Bros” and “Brothersport.” Then there’s a track like “Scheherezade,” which finds Panda Bear stripped of his usual production trademarks and left to negotiate the space around one dissonant chord, singing in a more abstract mode that interrupts the generally rhythmic flow of the album. Granted, these are exceptions and not the rule- it wouldn’t be an Animal Collective record if it didn’t effuse some warmth- but sure enough, Tomboy
is a bleaker record than standard AnCo fare.
But it’s warm as well, the album constantly struggling between a binary of stress and bliss, wishing to have Merriweather
’s naivety but unable to escape its own realities. Following the shadier tints of “Tomboy” and “Slow Motion” are tracks like “Surfer’s Hymn,” “Last Night at the Jetty” and “Drone,” gorgeous gems that turn back to major modes and sound genuinely happy. And even these songs bear a heavier weight. It’s not a stretch to read “Jetty”’s repetitions of “I know, I know, I know, I know” as desperate, nor is it difficult to read into Panda Bear opening “Surfer’s Hymn” with “When there are hard times, I’ll step it up.” The most curious (and potentially most intriguing) illustration of this binary is “Afterburner,” the album’s longest and most percussive track. It’s in minor but it doesn’t feel like it, carrying a beat that is simultaneously danceable and exhausting in a good way, the opposing forces of Tomboy
allowed to duke it out during the penultimate track of the record. Whether you read “Benfica” as ironic or peaceful will determine which side wins for you. For me, “Benfica” feels like an alleviation, allowing the tension Tomboy
bears to burn out over a slow four minutes, all ambiguous and heavy-like.
To understate it, this album is complicated. It gives us as much heart as Lennox allows it to give, which is both just enough to feel something
but not enough to know what that something
is. There’s no real resolution to its tension, as the album both wants to be the summer album Panda Bear fans expect and something else, something darker. Me, I like that ambiguity. Tomboy
is a record open to a vast number of interpretations and readings, and because of that, it won’t resonate with everyone. But for once, that’s refreshing. Tomboy
is something distinctly “Panda Bear,” and, wonderfully, there’s no clear consensus on what that means.