Arts & CultureMusic

Double Takes: Discussing Panda Bear's new album 'Meets The Grim Reaper'

In our Double Takes series, Emerald staff writers share their thoughts on new music with one another.

Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, the fifth and newest album from Animal Collective member Panda Bear is one of the first major album releases of 2015. Two of our music writers, Emerson Malone and Daniel Bromfield, met to discuss what makes the record great (or not-so-great) and then posted their own separate reviews.

Daniel Bromfield: I’m trying to figure out how Panda Bear wants us to see him on this record. The title makes me think it’s very personal, but it’s also a much more production-oriented record.  What do you think?

Emerson Malone: Well, I mean he wrote Young Prayer for his dying dad, so it’s always been a very emotionally visceral thing for him to sing about death. There’s definitely a morbid element in the foreground of a lot of Grim Reaper.

DB: How so?

EM: In “Mr. Noah,” he talks about a dog getting bit on the leg. And “Tropic of Cancer” can definitely be interpreted as being about his dad passing.

DB: I think the song is about that. Just look at the title.

EM: What were your early favorites?

DB: I think “Boys Latin” is definitely the standout, which is strange because it’s one of the less lyrically focused songs.

EM: It’s hard to understand what he’s saying, which doesn’t matter because of how he overlays his vocals in the chorus.

DB: It’s very joyful.

EM: Yeah definitely. It feels ecstatic, even if the subject matter is pretty grim. This is much more complicated production than Tomboy, but it’s also more focused than Person Pitch, which was almost maximalist.

DB: I remember him saying he wanted to “attack” the instruments more and make something less focused on sampling (on Tomboy). On this one, I feel there are more sampling and effects, but it’s very physical in a way Person Pitch wasn’t.

EM: You can’t have any of his music on in the background. It really reels your attention in.

DB: When I was going into it I went in with lofty expectations, but I kinda learned to just vibe to it.

EM: I was the opposite. After Centipede Hz I was pretty disenchanted with Animal Collective, but I was very stoked when I heard this album’s singles. What do you think of how he repeats his vocals and lyrics a lot?

DB: I see that as his influences from dance music.  The first thing I thought when I heard “Boys Latin” was the new Caribou.

EM: I love how he can send his voice into these pitch-perfect melodies. He had a live album after Tomboy, and you can just listen and it’s very obvious he’s not adding too many effects to his vocals.

DB: I feel on his earlier albums he’s a lot more rapturous – definitely a Brian Wilson thing. On this one he’s more in control.

EM: The sounds he’s making are very out-there, but the way he’s singing makes it seem like it’s a very normal thing for him.

DB: I think “normalcy” is pretty key. I think this is kind of the album where he’s like, “This is normal, this is what I do.”

EM: For sure. I felt on Centipede Hz that they were getting weird for the sake of weird.

DB: I can’t really blame them, but now Animal Collective is no longer this sacred cow; it has made an album that could have derailed its legacy, so now Panda Bear can be like, “Whatever” now.

EM: Animal Collective may not be a sacred cow, but it still makes tasty hamburgers. I think when Panda Bear’s unchained and he’s allowed to abide his own rules, that’s when he makes astounding stuff.

Listen to Panda Bear’s track ‘Boys Latin’ below.

Daniel’s review:

Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper is Panda Bear’s cheeriest album yet, which leaves one wondering what to make of that title. My theory is that Panda Bear’s settled down. The man born Noah Lennox is now a father, closer to 40 than 30, and his band Animal Collective is no longer a critical juggernaut after the disappointing Centipede Hz. These may be signs of age – and by extension, impending death. But they also mean Lennox, as a somewhat venerable musician, can do pretty much whatever he wants.

Grim Reaper is Lennox’s least ambitious album. “Tropic of Cancer,” the only song explicitly dealing with death (his father’s), sounds like a ’90s quiet storm ballad. Nothing sounds like Brian Wilson, to whom the blogosphere incessantly compared Lennox in the ’00s. For the most part, Grim Reaper consists of ostinato tracks Lennox reluctantly referred to as “beats” in a Rolling Stone interview, overlaid with vocals that provide most of the melodic heft.

They’re incredibly catchy. “Mr. Noah” is Lennox’s best pop song since 2007’s “Take Pills, with an instantly memorable hook that finds him imitating digital delay with his own voice. And on “Boys Latin,” the album’s most impressive tune, he chops his vocals into an unearthly call-and-response that still follows pop form. Whenever the beats threaten to stagnate, Lennox swoops in with a killer vocal hook and saves the day.

But these tunes feel curiously simple by Panda Bear’s standards. Sometimes, as on the skippable “Selfish Gene,” they’re a bit too so. This is definitely a passion project, and as listenable as it is, it makes no effort to be high art, “progressive,” or a “statement.” As bewildering as the contrast between the title and the music is, the message is clear: I am Panda Bear, and this is my sound.

Emerson’s review:

If there is any true constant in Panda Bear’s sound, and if there’s a central reason why anyone should listen to this new release, it’s the masterful way that he harnesses his voice and uses it to his eminent advantage. Panda Bear expertly demonstrated this on “I Think I Can” and Tomboy stand-out “Last Night at the Jetty.”

His vocal range is beyond comprehension; he has the pipes of someone you’d be envious to stand next to in a choir’s tenor section. Panda Bear, the moniker of one-man band Noah Lennox, carries each track on Grim Reaper with self-harmonization and repetitive lyricisms drenched in reverberation. His voice is no less important an instrument than its electronic pairing.

The opener “Sequential Circuits” sets a melancholy atmosphere for the album; Lennox bellows in a Gregorian chant mimicry that recalls “Ponytail” on 2007’s Person Pitch. In stark contrast, on the ecstatic single “Boys Latin,” Lennox perpetually interjects himself to finish his elated thoughts in a beautifully layered and youthful way. Purely from a technical standpoint, this track is a marvel.

Grim Reaper‘s other single “Mr. Noah” begins with grimy effects and the sound of whining dogs. This hangs in the air for nearly a minute before it breaks into a beat-heavy rhythm and warbly chorus. The alien meandering never detracts Panda Bear far from creating some contagious grooves, like “Principe Real” or “Come to Your Senses.” Each new production from Lennox seems to come from a very alienated, as well as homey and welcoming, place. Grim Reaper is representative of some of the best exports from Animal Collective, incorporated.

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Daniel Bromfield

Daniel Bromfield

Daniel Bromfield is a writer for the Arts & Culture desk of the Emerald, specializing in music. He maintained the SF Rebirth blog in San Francisco from 2010-2013, and his work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, KWVA, and the Oregon Voice.