Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper review – blurry, beautiful psychedelia

Noah Lennox’s latest album may not sound quite as weird or radical as some of his previous ones, but it’s still full of irresistibly lovely sounds

With their pseudonyms, penchant for making interminable avant garde films and frequently oblique lyrics (“Can I sing and make change without crushing clams?”; “When I was young I thought fruit was an infinite thing”), US electronic psychedelicists Animal Collective are a band that invite differing interpretations. So it’s perhaps no surprise that people have set to the title of Collective member Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox’s fifth solo album with some gusto. Depending on what you read, it’s either an indication that Lennox has made a concept album about death along the lines of his 2004 album Young Prayer – inspired by his father’s terminal illness and recorded in the room where he died – or is thinking about retiring the Panda Bear name altogether.

It’s clear why people have drawn those conclusions, not least because Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper opens with the funereal organ of Sequential Circuits, shortly afterwards offers up 30 seconds of ominous noise entitled Davy Jones’ Locker and, on Tropic of Cancer – a track that begins with a burst of The Last Post – appears to allude to his father’s death once more: “When they said he’s ill/ Laughed it off as if it’s no big deal/ What a joke to joke.” But it also features two songs apparently inspired by a PlayStation 2 game and some pretty gleeful pop music – Boys Latin’s ping-ponging vocal harmonies, the chugging synthesisers of Selfish Gene. Indeed, listening to it, it’s hard not to wonder if there’s not something more prosaic behind the title than an overarching concept about mortality or a coded message about Lennox’s artistic future: perhaps it’s just a homage to the kind of gleefully overblown titles found on old dub albums, on which Scientist was held to have Rid the World of the Evil Curse of Vampires, or Encountered Pac Man.

Certainly, it seems every bit as obsessed with the sound of echo as most dub albums do. It’s co-produced by Sonic Boom (those who remember him as the wraith-like, heroin-using frontman of Spacemen 3 may wish to gawp for a moment at the recently published photograph of him working on the album, shirtless and tanned, on a patio in Menorca), and virtually every sound on Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is submerged under fathoms of reverb, until it’s as blurry as the title’s meaning.

What lurks beneath is music that ties together the respective sounds of the album’s two predecessors: the remarkable patchwork of samples found on 2007’s Person Pitch (which, when unpicked, revealed everything from Kylie Minogue to a rondo by the 14th-century composer Guillaume de Machaut to the Tornados playing the theme tune to Popeye) is matched to the tighter song structures of its followup, Tomboy. You can understand why the prospect of Lennox refining, rather than radically shifting his sound might be greeted with dismay by the kind of Animal Collective fan who sets great store by the band’s refusal to repeat itself – lurching as they do from acid folk to noise to electronics, following their relatively poppy commercial breakthrough Merriweather Post-Pavillion with the busy, crowded Centipede Hz. But it’s hard to be disappointed when the results are as striking as Mr Noah, which sets its grinding clatter against an exuberant vocal melody that’s impossible to dislodge from your head; or as elated as Boys Latin or Come to Your Senses, the latter placing a head-nodding breakbeat behind a wall of synthesised murk and another irresistible melody.

And for all the reappearance of what you might call Panda Bear motifs – the multi-tracked harmony vocals, the crunchy electronic rhythms, an apparently bottomless supply of whooshing, gusting sound effects – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is still capable of springing suprises: the most striking thing about Tropic of Cancer might not be its lyrics so much as the way it melds a harp sample from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker to a vocal line that appears to have been transported from a rock’n’roll-era ballad; Lonely Wanderer tones down the sonic overload found elsewhere a little in favour of limpid, languid piano arpeggios, underscored by a brooding hum.

It ends with another vaguely hymnal track, Acid Wash; it’s not funereal, but uplifting, the rhythm track apparently comprised of samples of lapping water set to a steady pulse. Eventually the song is drowned out by an explosion of noise that sounds weirdly triumphant. And well it might. There’s nothing radically new here, which means it doesn’t have the same jolting appeal as Person Pitch. But rather than repeat himself, Lennox has successfully honed his sound. He’s talked proudly in interviews about Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper “hitting the psychedelic sweet spot” and he’s got a point.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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