Panda Bear, ‘Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper’ – Album Review
The first word of each line of Panda Bear's 'Mr. Noah' form an acrostic -- at least, they do the way they're laid out in the liner notes for 'Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper.'
First stanza: "W-O-L-F." Second stanza: "B-E-A-R." Third: "E-A-G-L-E." Noah Lennox -- Panda Bear's human avatar, if you will -- has said that a "healer witch person" who lives close by his home in Lisbon told him these were his three spirit animals. In 'Mr. Noah,' Lennox has something to say about each animal, and about himself; for example, in the "eagle" stanza: "So much for the safest vibe / Tossed aside / But he burns like a blaze inside / Hey, hey, hey."
'Mr. Noah' is a blueprint for the album, obscurely but harshly examining Lennox's anxieties and experiences. Lennox has lived in Lisbon for 10 years, mostly away from the New York City grind, and has had plenty of time -- including the four years since 'Tomboy' -- to mull these things over.
A dog -- a stand-in for the wolf, maybe -- recurs as a character throughout the album. Dogs yelp at the outset of 'Mr. Noah,' and Lennox likens himself to a dog with an injured leg, laying around, biding its time; the injured dog makes a cameo in 'Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker,' which revolves around the phrase, "Really shouldn't bring that other guy"; on 'Principe Real,' named for the Lisbon neighborhood where Lennox lives, a sheep dog, cocooned and safe in its own fur, nips at his heels.
Thusly does Lennox wrestle with his own nature on 'PBMTGR' -- with lyrics that obfuscate, imagining himself at a distance. The album progresses this way linearly from the open to close -- birth to death (the first track, 'Sequential Sounds,' is layered with primordial animal sounds and pre-dawn organ). Early tracks obsess over the present, with titles alluding vaguely to childhood, like 'Crosswords,' or the abandoned playground carousel of 'Boys Latin,' pondering the privilege of being human in an interchange of vocal sounds, like students taking turns conjugating Latin verbs.
Later tracks splice adult anxieties and advice together in a survey of Lennox's own moods and preoccupations -- protecting his family, his own mortality, living up to other people's artistic expectations. Ultimately, the record is what the title promises -- a sly confrontation with death, and all it contains: childhood, parenthood, sickness, dogs.
Musically, Lennox employs the same tactics -- layering sounds to the point of distortion, obscuring time, building complex melodies within the confines of single chords. A couple of tracks in particular meld Lennox's fog of sound and his searching lyrics into something unexpected: 'Tropic of Cancer,' Panda Bear-does-Phil Specter, with Lennox trying to sympathize with the cancer that killed his father; 'Selfish Gene,' a string of advice about surviving as an artist, anchored by one of Lennox's best melodies.
But for the most part, Lennox treads familiar musical ground, and the one disappointment here is that the music doesn't surprise much, or even always live up to the ambitiousness of the record's theme. 'Person Pitch,' Lennox's 2007 Panda Bear breakthrough, was a hypnotic deluge of unlikely sounds; 2011's 'Tomboy' toned down that approach in favor of songs with hooks that were arresting, even stunning. It would make sense that an album that takes a long look in the mirror would go short on new sounds, but some of the thrill of Lennox's past records is a little lost with this toned-down affair.
The progression of the album is satisfying, but the sounds are mostly what we've come to expect -- nothing here would have sounded out of place on 'Meriweather Post Pavilion,' for example. As we follow what could plausibly be understood as a kind of autobiography, told from a variety of perspectives, we find ourselves wishing for a little more of the eagle -- sonically, if not lyrically -- and a little less of the bear.