A long time has passed. A lot has happened since that last post when I had to pull the plug on the server and retreat. It’s good to be home. And yes, Time heals. I have dreamed of this day when I could plug the server back in, fire it up and look back at the last posts. Then, it seemed like an overwhelming wash of emotions with every shade of hurt being felt at the core level. The posts seem almost amusing in reading them again. They really feel like they were a long time ago but they really are not. Perhaps, my journey from that point A to my point B, where I am now, makes it feel distant. I have travelled a long way emotionally and spiritually for the better. There is life after love. Love never goes away, it just changes into a new form of it’s self. I’m okay with that.
More streamlined than 2007’s Person Pitch, yet more rhythmically robust than 2011’s Tomboy, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is Panda Bear’s toughest, grimiest, and funkiest album to date.
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The great irony about bringing a new life into this world is you start worrying a lot more about death. Not just that of the family members you must provide for and protect, but your own, as well. Plain and simple, the first rule of parenting is: don’t die. When entrusted with the immense obligation of caring for a child, even the youngest of new parents become exceedingly conscious of their own mortality and survival instincts. Behaviors once taken for granted—like, say, air travel or cycling alongside cars on city streets—start to feel more like roulette games wagered with your life; once-considered activities like bungee jumping and skydiving get transferred from your bucket list to a “fuck that” list.
You could hear that sort of uneasiness gradually seep into the seemingly serene work of Noah Lennox—a.k.a. Panda Bear—over the past decade, both without and within Animal Collective. As the first A.C. member to become a parent, Lennox has become increasingly fond of rooting his boundless sonic exploration in meditations on home life, whether cheekily celebrating the drudgery of domesticity (“Chores”), eulogizing the family dog (“Derek”), making heartfelt affirmations of paternal duty (“My Girls”), or openly fretting over his shortcomings as a breadwinner (“Alsatian Darn”). And though he’s avoided explicitly ecclesiastical language in his solo work since writing 2004’s psych-folk hymnal Young Prayer for his late father, each Panda Bear record released since has retained the form and feel of a communal church service: They welcome us in with reassuring proverbs (“try to remember always, always to have a good time”) couched in heaven-sent harmonies, provide a sense comfort in the face of encroaching chaos, and strive to connect our physical world to a more celestial plane. And be it the psychedelic pop sprawl of 2007’s Person Pitch or the dub-like lurch of 2011’s Tomboy, a Panda Bear record ultimately requires a test of faith, a belief that Lennox’s beaming voice will guide us safely through the dense, phantasmagoric fog that threatens to consume it. In Lennox’s cathedral of sound, you can always see the stormy skies creeping in view through the radiant stained-glass windows.
On his latest venture, the tension between inner peace and external pressure reaches boss-battle proportions. Lifting its main-event billing from old King Tubby records, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper serves a similar function for its creator as Slasher Flicks did for Avey Tare—it’s a playful, fantastical response to some serious life changes. In Portner’s case, it was divorce and strep throat; for Lennox, it’s the entry into middle age and the substantial familial responsibilities that go with it. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Lennox pondered the possibility of retiring the Panda Bear moniker, which makes sense—part of getting older is doing away with your old college nicknames. But if that is indeed the case, Panda Bear is not going down without a fight.
More streamlined than Person Pitch and more rhythmically robust than Tomboy, Grim Reaper is Panda Bear’s toughest, grimiest, and funkiest album to date. But all that extra grit and groove doesn’t come at the expense Lennox’s unmistakable melodic graces, which still provide each song with its pulse. As to be expected from an album co-produced with Tomboy holdover Pete Kember (a.k.a. Sonic Boom of ’80s psych-punk patriarchs the Spacemen 3) and reportedly inspired by classic ’90s boom-bap beat construction, Grim Reaper achieves just the right balance of skull-splitting drone and head-noddin’ drive. In contrast to the unpredictably amorphous song structures that defined previous Panda Bear records, many of the songs on Grim Reaper lock into a looped beat and rarely waver course. However, they’re often prefaced by or dissolve into ominous, buzzing oscillations (some of which, like the half-minute “Davy Jones’ Locker”, are portioned off into stand-alone tracks) that suggest the onset of a panic attack or some shadowy predator. As such, the midnight-marauding march of lead single “Mr Noah” and electro-fuzzed yodeling of “Boys Latin” are transformed into weapons of retaliation—a strobe-lit assault on the encroaching bleakness. “Dark cloud has descended again,” Lennox sings on the chorus of the latter song, but his elated vocal thrusts the black mass back up into the stratosphere.
Lennox told Pitchfork last fall that, despite all the personal rumination that inspired Grim Reaper, he wanted to keep his lyrics purposefully non-specific and relatable. But for all its booming breaks and future-shocked freneticism, Grim Reaper—like all Panda Bear records—remains a highly insular experience, one where it often sounds as if Lennox is speaking into a mirror. “So good, you’ve got it so good,” he sings overtop the blissed-out shuffle of “Crosswords”—a simple statement of fact from a happily married father of two who lives in a cosmopolitan coastal European city in between sold-out tours. But his wistful delivery betrays the fear of losing it all. And Lennox spends much of the seven-minute “Come to Your Senses” repeating a question (“Are you mad?”) for which there is only one logical answer (“Yeah, I’m mad”), as the song’s shantytown acid-house throb mediates between serenity and insanity. A sobering aftershock arrives in the form of late-album wake-up call “Selfish Gene”—a sort-of post-rave “That’s Not Me”—where the incessant synth-jabs provide Lennox with needling reminders of his family-man mission (“When it comes to fill those spaces/ Only you can fill those spaces”).
Taken as a whole, Grim Reaper feels like a gradual process of Lennox trying to tune out the extraneous noise of modern life and focus on what’s truly important to him. And it’s an evolution mirrored by the album’s sequence, which bookends the most boisterous, beat-driven songs around two stunning centerpiece tracks—”Tropic of Cancer” and “Lonely Wanderer”—that provide Grim Reaper with an extended and well-earned moment of quiet contemplation. The former is a cosmic doo-wop serenade that stands as the most affecting and beautiful vocal performance of Lennox’s career; the latter projects a gorgeous, aqueous tranquility unheard from the Animal Collective camp since side two of Feels, its light piano drizzle summoning thundercloud rumbles of foreboding reverberations.
But even when it trades in day-glo stompers for weightless ballads, Grim Reaper still crushes. In the unsentimental, funereal refrain of “Tropic of Cancer”—”you can’t get back, you won’t come back, you can’t come back to it”—Lennox invokes his father’s 2002 death and, in doing so, reemphasizes his own current reality as a patriarch, and that pervasive, deep-seated fear of prematurely leaving one’s family behind. If Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper posits adult life as some imaginary horror movie, it’s one where the phone call warning of impending doom is coming from inside the house.