Review Summary: Panda Bear Meets the Expectations.
Noah Lennox, known musically as Panda Bear, has been on quite a journey in his musical career. As one of the founding members of the well-known psychedelic group Animal Collective, he has contributed to some of the great albums of the previous decade, such as “Feels” (2005) and “Merriweather Post Pavilion” (2009). During his time outside of Animal Collective, he has released some notable work under his own name, like the infamous sample-filled psychedelic/electronic album “Person Pitch” (2007), and in 2011 he released “Tomboy”, where his sound evolved into a more pop-like, reverb filled sound, receiving mixed reviews from the Animal Collective fan base, leading people to wonder if Panda Bear, and Animal Collective as a whole, was plateauing in terms of creativity. If Panda Bear has now met death and its physical manifestation known as the Grim Reaper, it has turned out to aid in the birth of one of the most diverse albums that Panda Bear has created to date, and nowhere near his musical downfall.
It all starts off with “Sequential Circuits”, which opens the album up with some strong and broad synths, creating this feeling of adventure, as if you’re about to adventure out into the unknown. Then enters the signature harmonized vocals of Panda Bear, as the song progressively opens itself up. The warm sounds, and adventurous feelings provide a gateway into the first big track of the album, “Mr Noah”, which is familiar off of the “Mr Noah EP” that Panda Bear released in October, 2014. The decent-paced beat and mysterious whimpering sounds throughout the background provide a backbone for the repetitive yet bouncy vocals that Panda Bear puts onto the track, and it makes you want to continue bobbing your head along as the song progresses. The next group of tracks all continue to keep this upbeat vibe that “Mr Noah” creates, while creating a flowing stream of sound to start the first half of the album, but it leaves you asking... For an album that has the Grim Reaper as one of its main topics, where is the darkness? Where is the seriousness?
That’s when “Tropic of Cancer” hits. The whispering wind, followed by the looping sound of plucked stringed instruments, create this eerie scene, as Panda Bear’s vocals come in singing in a sad and down tone, speaking of the loss of someone in his family, due to a sickness. Everything slowly builds up as the lyrics become more and more strong over the 6 minute course of the song, and you feel as if this is the moment Panda Bear connects with that darkness of death as he spirals downward. The emotions the album emits continue to get darker and sadder as the song “Lonely Wanderer” comes around, releasing an avalanche of piano keys, all as Panda Bear continues to ask questions about the recent death of his family member, while also asking, “was it worthwhile?”, to the deceased person, as if he is worried he didn’t do his part in their life. This sudden blast of depression and sadness is what the album needed, and it is thrown at you in a way where you really feel for what Panda Bear must’ve been going through, in a way similar to his 2004 release “Young Prayer”, which was an homage to his dad, who had died that year. This is the definitive part of the album, in my opinion, where the album fully lives up to its name, and where the climax is reached.
After “Lonely Wanderer” though, the album gets a little off track. “Principle Real” enters, and all of sudden, the sounds have changed from sad pianos, to a mid-tempo catwalk type of drum beat with spacious synths and some pop-influenced vocals layered over it all. It throws everything that was just presented beforehand to the side, and this, I believe, is the main downside to “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper”. Everything had felt so fluent and well put together, but then this comes forward? It just wasn’t that expected. Not all hope was lost for the ending, though.
The penultimate song, “Selfish Gene”, enters with a staccato synth progression, followed by Panda Bear’s signature simplistic vocals, which end with “You’ll trip up again, go get up again”, symbolizing that his sadness is ending, and that he is moving onwards in life. Though this does seem clichè and cheesy, it is a style that Panda Bear has embraced and used for years, most notably when he clearly states, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” on “Person Pitch”. It is as if Panda Bear is purposefully attempting to finish his latest album on a familiar note, filled with warm sounds and warm lyrics, and with that, the album transitions to one final song following the same intentions as “Selfish Gene”, and the album sets itself to sea. Yes, it isn’t the most climatic or eventful of endings, but it is the kind of goodbye where you wave and smile as your fears are left behind you, and the sun is rising on the horizon. It is a fitting ending to an album about a journey downwards and back.
So yes, “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper” may not be perfect in any way, shape, or form, but it is yet another expression of Panda Bear’s life, and a terrific one at that. It invites you in with its diverse and welcoming sound, pulls you through a sea of emotion, and then lets you go at the finish with a warm and familiar resonance. If Panda Bear’s recent musical inspiration ended with this as the final product, it’ll be exciting to see where his next ideas will take him in his already intriguing, and quite brilliant musical discography he has crafted together thus far.