Soon after the booming chorus of hosannas recedes, one terrifying question looms above every artist who has produced a masterwork: now what? Most never fully make good on their initial promise and are left to coast on increasingly diminished goodwill (Liz Phair since Exile in Guyville). Some shrewdly alter expectations and continue to be great on their own terms (Radiohead after OK Computer). Others quit, rather than follow success with disappointment (Neutral Milk Hotel after In the Aeroplane over the Sea). A handful, the true giants, top themselves, to the astonishment of critics and fans alike (the Beatles after Rubber Soul, Led Zeppelin after Led Zeppelin I, Prince after Dirty Mind, Bob Dylan after The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Highway 61, Revisited and “Love and Theft”). Then there are those who get tantalizingly close to, but just fall-short of, their former greatness.
This is where we find Noah Lennox, better known as Panda Bear, with the release of his new album Tomboy. Following a double-knockout – his universally celebrated 2007 solo-album Person Pitch and his work on the equally beloved 2009 Animal Collective album Merriweather Post Pavilion – Lennox returns with some of the best music of his career. By most standards, Tomboy is a terrific album. Unfortunately, the highest standard Lennox faces is Panda Bear’s own.
Devotees of Person Pitch will likely be disappointed by Tomboy, at least at first. Where Person Pitch was swirling and layered, bursting with textures and ideas, Tomboy is more minimalistic and streamlined, in some instances so much so that Lennox’s reverberated vocal is accompanied by little more than some synthesized tones. Where Person Pitch delighted with one surprise twist and winsome turn after another, Tomboy is direct, maybe even a bit safe. Where Person Pitch seemed born out of chaotic bursts of creativity, Tomboy seems crafted and deliberate. Where Person Pitch was a sprawling, singular statement, Tomboy is less unified and song-based. Where Person Pitch could be impenetrable in its density, Tomboy is compulsively accessible.
NPR has noted that Lennox, who now resides in Lisbon, seems inspired by the acoustics of the city’s cathedrals. That doesn't seem too far off, as Tomboy is an aural joy, at its best when Lennox’s unique timbre cascades through your headphones like Gregorian chant filtered through Pet Sounds. In fact, a good portion of Tomboy can best be described as experimental sacred music. “Drone,” “Scheherazade,” “Friendship Bracelet,” and “Benfica” recall hymnody, as the wonderful single “Surfer’s Hymn” makes clear right in its title. At times these songs can meander and flirt with formlessness (“Drone,” indeed), but they also show that Lennox’s simplest compositions can be as sublime as his most labyrinthine.
That said – fans of melody, don’t despair! On Tomboy, Lennox continues his long journey into pop. His songwriting is still defined by circularity, and the hooks he turns have never been this immediate. “Afterburner” skips on a vaguely funk foundation, with Lennox’s vocal melody rising, falling, and tumbling upon itself. The clap and strut of “You Can Count on Me,” “Last Night at the Jetty,” and “Alsatian Darn” could be described as stately and rollicking in the same breath, without fear of contradiction. “Slow Motion,” the album’s standout, reminds us that what counts is “deep down,” except its charm – let’s dance! – is front and center.
Noah Lennox has often cited Jack White as an influence. Strange as it may sound, Lennox and White are kindred spirits, especially in terms of worldview. “You Can Count on Me,” “Last Night at the Jetty,” and “Slow Motion” exist in the same universe as the White Stripes’ “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart,” “We’re Going to Be Friends,” and “I’m Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman.” It’s a place where innocence may be lost, but cynicism has yet to replace it. “Childlike” is not the right word to describe it, but it comes close. It’s the sense of life Brian Wilson tried to capture on Smile, only applied to adulthood. “Seems that we once had [dreams], now we’ll have them all the time,” a bright-eyed Lennox sings, perhaps to his wife, on “Jetty.” On “Alsatian Darn,” Lennox “can’t get sleeping at night” because the anxiety of providing for his family overwhelms him. Instead of giving up, he resolves to not “slide” or “slip up.” “When there are hard times I'll step it up” he affirms on “Surfer’s Hymn.” For Lennox, life is daunting, but it can be mastered with some deft maneuvering. “Though waves comes crashing, a good board can steady.”
Serious music, meaning music that is worthy of serious consideration, is usually categorized by the false antipodes of fleeting decadence and existential dread. Panda Bear makes serious music, no doubt, but he offers a third way: he acknowledges the ills of the world, but never succumbs to them. It sounds like self-help for the indie crowd, and maybe that’s true. But it’s amazing how kind and true words can suddenly become palatable when they’re presented this expertly in song.
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