Album Review: Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper

Album Reviews
01/16/2015
Gerrit Feenstra

We can finally say it: Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is here! And yet, now listening to it, it seems like the record wouldn't have been appropriate coming any sooner than it did. The long-anticipated, long dreamed about concept piece from Animal Collective founding member Noah Lennox, a.k.a. Panda Bear, has arrived in impressive, kaleidoscopic form. It's a swirling, youthful, bug-eyed wonder, and yet, it holds a maturity and a somberness that speaks volumes of the emotional territory that Lennox has covered taking on some new milestones in adult life. We got a prequel and a character introduction late last year with the Mr Noah lead single and accompanying EP, but now, Lennox's character starts his Dante-esque journey into the underworld to show us all a world we could never imagine for ourselves. Panda Bear meets the Grim Reaper, and he may look pretty freaky at first, but after a while, the dark clouds on the horizon become more of a warm reminder than a foreboding omen. Bigger than Tomboy, crazier than Person Pitch, and easily the most invigorating effort in Panda Bear's already stellar catalogue, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper is an introduction and a conversation worth partaking in.

We've already come to know and love "Mr Noah" from the prequel EP, but opening up Grim Reaper here with "Sequential Circuits", we get a reintroduction to our main character in more of a rising action context. "Sequential Circuits" asks a lot of questions in not a whole lot of time. Here, the "Mr Noah" we saw in a vacuum before is caught up in the questions of life - what does it mean to live in a continuum, where my actions today have a direct effect on those I will make tomorrow, and how do I know when I will run out? For example, "Seeds become a tree because you can't be a growth and the same as before". Damn. Next up, "Crosswords" and "Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker" are maybe the single most pop-minded tracks of Lennox's career. The former is a hazy, sexy float through the passive, contented days of our lives. The latter is a tragically humorous follow up to "Mr Noah", where chaos and stooging whimsy carry panic down the rabbit hole towards the Reaper.

"Boys Latin" and "Come To Your Senses" are the personal confrontation section of Grim Reaper. "Beasts don't have a second to think, but we don't appreciate our things", sing the alternating Noahs in the spacey void. "Boys Latin" is easily the grooviest number on Grim Reaper. An existential dub beat is topped with driving synth bass and Lennox's signature gargantuan vocal pilings. Rather than a statement about anyone's alma mater, it's more a word on learning and education in general: we always see the dark clouds in the rush of the moment, but have no time to simply be. Further distraction from ourselves and our immediate surroundings come on the next number, where anger and confusion obscure any sense of reality from the situation. This is the point in the journey where the swirling, infinite pools of synthesized death seem to overwhelm Panda Bear on his journey. The small bit of motivation that got him out of bed on "Mr Noah" has dissipated into fear and insecurity. Such is the case for all of us in moments of doubt.

After facing the inevitable on "Tropic of Cancer", Panda Bear enters a state of purgatory, not the suffering sadness away from loved ones kind, but the waiting room kind (the Beetlejuice kind). "Lonely Wanderer" sounds about how you expect it to. The descending piano lines and slow burn of the reverb could have fit this track in easily among the meditative efforts of Animal Collective's Feels. After realizing "you can't come back again" on the prior track, here, Panda Bear asks himself some big, retrospective questions. "What have you done? How do you feel? Was it worthwhile?" he sings softly in elongated, ghostly form. Even heavier in some respects than the anticipation of the end is the aftermath: will we have done enough to feel satisfied with ourselves? Or, will we reach the end and see that it's been all for naught? Lennox isn't pulling any punches when it comes to asking the epic questions of human existence.

But don't be afraid, Grim Reaper's final quarter brings the energy and the hopefulness back up as the meeting ends and we see the underworld in reverse. "Principe Real" is a disco-tinged tribute to a subsection of Lisbon, Portugal (Lennox's place of residence) that alleviates some heaviness with spacey synths and whimsical, bouncy vocals. But with "Selfish Gene", one solid build in tip-tapping energy builds to one last push of anxiety. "You'll trip up again", Lennox sings over and over, but then it is followed by an answer: "go get up again". The journey is cyclical, and Panda Bear seems to recognize that now better than before. "Acid Wash" is a triumphant, whimsical closer that celebrates a conflict won against the dark. Lennox throws every one of his spacey noisemakers in here, playing quite the Sergeant Pepper welcome home as his character returns from the other-worldly journey. Things end in an odd clamber, but one that feels just jarring enough to keep you thinking. After all, it's a won battle, but not a won war.

Go to Panda Bear's album site and you'll find a kaleidoscope of psychedelic channel surfing from director Danny Perez. With another arrow click, you'll be dazzled, amazed, hypnotized, and occasionally, totally terrified. The site puts Perez's Animal Collective collaboration film ODDSAC to the test in terms of weirdness, but it all seems to point to a similar idea. Take the screaming painted faces, or the nude aliens for instance. At first it's kind of weird, disconcerting, or even frightening, but after a while, you start to try and bond with the images, doing your best to take your human understanding and meet the aliens or masked creatures halfway, and you'll find yourself a lot further out on the edge than you started. The best of them all is a short section showing the Grim Reaper with a plush panda bear nestled in his arms. But after a few peaceful seconds, the camera shakes and spirals and it appears that the Reaper is tearing the bear apart piece by piece, but really, it's just a trick of the light. If that isn't a great metaphor for fearing the Reaper, I don't know what is. This is maybe my best single image explanation of Panda Bear's latest epic. There is fear of the unknown, and there is knowledge that yes, some things are indeed permanent. But living in fear of that inevitable horizon is not the answer. Instead, we must rage against the dying of the light with a smile and let lightness take precedent over the weight of the world. Death may be Lennox's subject of choice here, but there are countless subtexts: social isolation, anxiety, egocentrism, selfishness, all the bits of darkness that Lennox sees himself giving in to bit by bit. But the weight of it all is a matter of perspective - one that we might only really realize after a face to face encounter with the Reaper. He must not be such a grim guy after all.

Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper is out now on Domino! Keep your eyes out for a tour at Panda Bear's Facebook and make sure to check out the super crazy album website while it's still up.

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