Review: Panda Bear, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper

Grim Reaper is a real trickster of a record.
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Grim Reaper is a real trickster of a record.
Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper

opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >

Noah Lennox, the Lisbon-based Animal Collective member who records expansive psychedelic pop as Panda Bear, sometimes get slapped with tags like “freak folk.” This only illustrates how open to interpretation the idea of folk music is in the twenty-first century, since Panda Bear would be classified under most rubrics as an electronic musician. His tracks are almost entirely composed of loops and multi-track trompe l’oeil, and a DJ’s sense of repetitive structure, dynamics, and the art of the subtle shift is essential to the effect of his songs, which lull the listener into states of bliss and comfort like a successful club cut (the great joke of his ecstatic Daft Punk collaboration “Doin’ It Right” is that it sounds like any other Panda Bear song run through a simple vocoder effect). Typically, however, the common ground shared by Panda Bear and dance music is obscured by the seamlessness of his construction, his frequent sampling of acoustic instruments, and the warm, shambling sense of humanity that pervades his best-known LP, 2007’s Person Pitch. Only rarely does that album or its follow-up, 2011’s Tomboy, draw attention to its roots in digital composition or its aesthetic kinship with dance subgenres, especially techno and house: when they get caught in repeating circles, they seem to be caught in organic eddies of melody rather than programmed sequences – for instance, “Comfy In Nautica” does sound initially like skipping vinyl, but even that quality becomes subsumed by the new elements blossoming in every corner of the song. In other words, the songs’ myriad textures are so well-integrated that they seem to have grown, as if from the earth. The interior architecture that is surely there often goes incognito.

This, combined with his Wilson-like melodic genius, has led to the frequent designation of Panda Bear as Animal Collective’s McCartney, the sweeter populist to Avey Tare’s jaggedly experimental Lennon. What tends to get lost in this distinction is that Panda Bear’s ability to synthesize disparate textural elements into pleasing wholes depends on his preternatural sensitivity to texture. Dig a little deeper into his back catalog and you’ll find albums like 1998’s Panda Bear and the unsung 2004 masterpiece Young Prayer, works that sound collaged from fragments of unlike sounds, collections of songs that cohere through sheer force of melody or feeling rather than through the comparatively rudimentary production – a song like “On The Farm,” for instance, is a folky bedroom song submerged under watery keyboard loops and erupting occasionally into screams straight out of mid-‘90s emo. One way to frame the shift that’s taken place in Panda Bear’s music between 1998 and the present is to say that records like Person Pitch and Tomboy create sound-worlds, multi-dimensional sonic spaces that are believable because of their depth and expanse, qualities which in turn depend on how Panda Bear so convincingly stitches together their elements. The earlier records do not accomplish this; they have fewer planes. They aren’t worlds or even rooms the listener can enter, let alone become immersed (if you like Panda Bear) or lost (if you don’t) in. They’re incredibly rich, powerful pieces of music, but there’s a certain alienating effect to them that gets assuaged on the later albums.

Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper is the wicked revenge of that former Panda Bear. Like Spoon’s unfairly maligned Transference, a brilliant work that marked a similar shift in an artist’s world-building ability, Grim Reaper is a real trickster of a record. It’s not a sound-world, although it occasionally feints in that direction long enough to evoke the memory of the weaker Tomboy’s dullest moments before demolishing the illusion. On Grim Reaper, Panda Bear seems primarily interested in reminding the listener that the music is a created, built object. Not since the self-titled album has his music been so forthrightly digital: if Person Pitch and Tomboy can be likened to exceptionally well-rendered digital environments, the experience of hearing Grim Reaper is like being inside that environment as the computer circuits fry and error messages flash unendingly. The artist’s innate grasp of texture’s possibilities results in a record that, instead of blending textures, pits them against one another. Check the vocal hook on “Boys Latin,” each syllable of which emerges from a different point in the mix, each of them playing as its own distinct loop, no cohesive origin, barely an organizing principle. Is there a person singing “Boys Latin”? At one point, yes, Lennox was singing these words and notes, but in its final form, the song makes it vividly clear that we aren’t hearing a human voice, only its mediation, a digital ghost.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Grim Reaper is some kind of Kid A redux, a Cronenbergian nightmare about the merging of the human body and the technologies it depends on and uses to imagine itself. Grim Reaper is Panda Bear’s most aggressively electronic work to date, full of clattering rhythms and corroded keyboards, no computer-derived sound or structure permitted to masquerade as anything other than what it is. But this makes it, oddly, his most embodied work, too. This aesthetic sensibility’s array of glitches and digital degradations draws attention to its finitude and its physicality. When it comes to digital art (music, film, visual art) we often tacitly assume the goal is successful naturalistic representation, but Grim Reaper doesn’t aim to deceive. It wants to reveal or remind. So yes, as the title suggests, it’s an album about death and decay (not exactly new territory for this musician, as anyone who’s heard Young Prayer will confirm with a shudder). It’s a memento mori, intimately in touch with the ways a computer’s body can mirror its user’s, both subject to disease, neither immortal.

But for all that, Grim Reaper isn’t a wholly pessimistic piece of music, either. It’s frequently arrestingly beautiful (“Selfish Gene”) or driven nearly wild with joy (raucous party-starter “Mr Noah”), but always with a visceral, off-kilter kick where Panda Bear’s last pair of full-lengths opted for heavenly effervescence or communal transcendence. It’s telling that the least interesting song on the album is the one that would fit most easily on Tomboy, the celestial “Tropic Of Cancer.” But even this track reads as a bitterly ironic joke, since its harp arpeggios are immediately followed by the 18-second interlude “Shadow Of The Colossus,” a cacophony of malfunctioning buzzsaw synths that exposes how fleeting or illusory such beauty can be. The contrasts also serves, however, to elevate “Tropic Of Cancer.” If it sounds less sincere in context, it also sounds even lovelier. Nothing gold can stay, but it sparkles while it’s here. B+