Wednesday, January 14, 2015

album review: 'panda bear meets the grim reaper' by panda bear

One of the topics I've discussed fairly often in relation to indie pop is something called 'regression to childhood', which in the simplest of possible terms is the tendency of some indie artists to revert back to childlike states in their music in order to wring out a more emotionally authentic experience. I'll admit right out of the gate that I'm not precisely a fan of this - I'm a fan of more experienced, mature songwriting and storytelling - but there are cases where this sort of thing can work. There have been some great emo, pop punk, and indie pop records that have come from this mindset, and capturing that childlike wonder at the larger world is something potent in its own right - it was one of the thematic undercurrents that made Swans' most recent record To Be Kind so powerful for me.

That said, if we're looking for an act that pushes this regression to the limit, you have to look at Animal Collective. And to be honest, I've got a very complicated relationship with the band, where at best I can say they're hit-and-miss. On the one hand they can occasionally tap into a sound that evocative and unlike any others, but on the other hand, it can sometimes feel like they're throwing crap at the walls and seeing what will stick. From that point, I've often found myself as more interested in Panda Bear, the stage name for Noah Lennox and who has consistently proven himself to be a slightly more grounded presence, or at least one that's willing to embrace more traditional song structures. He's at least more consistent than Animal Collctive, and as such he made his name with the 2007 critically-beloved Person Pitch. And don't get me wrong, it's a really good album, but it's also one that convinced me that Lennox might be a better writer of succinct, tighter pop music in the vein of Brian Wilson than the overblown grand attempts that really can't sustain much of their length. Believe it or not, despite the fact that his 2011 follow-up Tomboy might not hit as many transcendent moments, I actually consider it a tighter, more cohesive record, especially when it comes to themes.

It was also a record that showed Panda Bear going darker, and when I heard the title of this record, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, I expected that trend to continue. So what did we get?

Honestly, I feel underwhelmed by this record. And the funny thing is that I didn't really have any expectations going into Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, outside of the assumption that it would probably be darker, given the themes. And yeah, it is... but the more I listened through this album, the more I get the impression that Noah Lennox could have done a little more with it. And while there are fragments and moments I do like, and the overall sound of the album is appealing, as a whole the record feels a little shapeless and could have used a little more definition.

So let's start with instrumentation and production - and by now, if you're familiar with Panda Bear's sound, you know exactly what you're getting. Washed-out, organic textures that feel imported from the late 60s, slightly off-kilter yet accessible melodies, layered vocal leads with a little too much reverb, slightly eerie samples or moments with a bit more grime or edge - more on this album than others, which is welcome - some decent grooves or interesting percussion progressions, and a taste for repetition that's both a blessing and a curse. Because let's be honest, Panda Bear's material tends to rely on establishing a solid vibe, either through grooves or melodies, and there are moments where that vibe can hold up - the oscillating grind of 'Mr. Noah', the wobbling piano groove of 'Crosswords', the wet glistening sound of 'Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker', the fluttering arpeggios of 'Tropic Of Cancer', the excellent contrast between the pianos and the harsher synth effects on 'Lonely Wanderer', and best of all, the sharply defined scratchy synth groove on 'Selfish Gene' that almost reminds me of mid-to-late period Depeche Mode. But here's the tricky thing about dropping into these vibes - if you don't modulate or evolve the grooves or melodies, it can make the tracks start to feel repetitive, and while Panda Bear's had a knack for these subtle manipulations before, on this album the shifts are either too subtle or buried to spot or the songs simply don't evolve in the same way. And that's before we get to the songs where instead of evolving, the tracks just end unexpectedly, almost feeling a little too short and abortive, something I'd never expect to say about a Panda Bear album.

It gets even stranger when you talk about the vocals - and look, Noah Lennox is a fine vocalist, and I get the appeal of the layered, multi-part harmonies and rounds he creates on this album - I just wish he didn't feel the need to pile on the reverb as much as he does. This is an issue I've had with Panda Bear for a long time, and it's apparent here - and look, it's a tricky balance here between the grim tone that you need for the darker themes and letting some emotional power run through the vocal delivery. And more often than not, Panda Bear's choice for heavier reverb does mute some of that impact on top of making the lyrics a lot harder to parse out, which really doesn't help matters.

So let's talk about the lyrics, shall we? For as much as the title implies a meeting with Death, Panda Bear's not going that dark by intimately making contact with the Grim Reaper himself. Instead, he's writing about the deaths of those who are close to him, and the slow realization he's growing older. In both cases, he's building in a degree of separation between himself and death, either through time or other people - which makes sense, Death is hard to confront. But it also does the same for the audience, which can make it a little tougher to connect with the sentiments behind Panda Bear's writing, which, as always, is repetitious, a little overly-simplistic, and at several points revealing of some really unflattering moments. But that being said, there are moments that get close - the implied death of a dog that plays out on the first half of the album, and where he gets personal on 'Tropic Of Cancer' and the very solid 'Lonely Wanderer' as he tries to reconcile his father's death. But Lennox said himself that he tried to keep the lyrics as non-specific and relatable as possible, trying to tap into that broad sense of populism...

And that's probably one of the biggest problems with this album - considering how much of it locks into distinctive, almost static vibes that don't really hit potent crescendos, making the lyrics broadly sketched neuters their emotional punch even further. And while I get that Panda Bear was trying to keep the album lightweight, only revealing his insecurities at the passage of time in the details, a veil of confidence to hide unease as he continues the arc from Tomboy and embraces more change, the darker moments don't really crystallize beyond some wistful regret in the vein of 'You don't really know what you've got until it's gone'. And sure, it's a fine sentiment, and there are points where it plays out well, but it feels underdeveloped, spread so thin that it boils down to a lot of vague platitudes. There is some curdled anger, but it never explodes or grows, and thus the somewhat triumphant feel of the final track 'Acid Wash' really does ring hollow for me, especially lyrically. 

So in the end... look, maybe this album just isn't for me. I've never been a huge Animal Collective or Panda Bear fan as it is, but even on that standard, I'm not sure Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper is as strong as it could have been. It never really lands that personal punch lyrically and feels a little too static instrumentally - it creates a solid vibe and then coasts there. And sure, one could argue that was its intention, but Noah Lennox has built tighter, more cohesive records, and I'm not sure this album rises to the heights that Person Pitch or Tomboy did. That said, I can't exactly say I disliked this album either, or that any one song on the record was outright bad, which for me is enough to elevate it to a 6/10, and a recommendation, especially if you're a Panda Bear fan. Otherwise... eh, if you can dig the vibe, it's worth a listen.

No comments:

Post a Comment