Noah Lennox is as expressive as ever on his fifth solo album – the second since the 36-year-old became a star of the global alternative scene via 2007’s dreamy ‘Person Pitch’ and his band Animal Collective’s 2009 monolith ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ – and Panda Bear’s encounters with The Grim Reaper take wildly different forms.
Opener ‘Sequential Circuits’ sounds like Lennox is being violently lashed by Death himself on an infernal chain gang in Hades. Then there are the moments when it seems like he’s racing 500cc bikes through underground tunnels – as on ‘Mr Noah’, a bizarro take on CBGBs punk that hinges on one fizzing, warped-out electric guitar sample and is the closest he’s ever got to ripping off the Ramones.
Elsewhere, he sounds like he’s washed up in the afterlife on a tropical island, being served a piña colada by a flunky in a black cape with a scythe. The gorgeous harp sample in ‘Tropic Of Cancer’ is pitched somewhere near the poignant ukulele of The Smiths’ ‘I Won’t Share You’, and ‘Lonely Wanderer’ is the sort of latent haze Mac DeMarco would kill to write.
Previously, Lennox would make a new album by working on one track at a time, then releasing it as a single, then moving on to the next, before binding them together into a whole. This record marks the first time since 2005’s ‘I’m Not/Comfy In Nautica’ – the first of the singles that would become ‘Person Pitch’ – that he hasn’t used that method. Strange, then, that ‘Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper’ sounds more like a singles collection than anything he’s ever done.
Yet for all its pop air, anyone holding out for a sequel to the stone-cold classic ‘Person Pitch’ should look away now. ‘Panda Bear Meets…’ is quite unlike it. Lennox’s template has shifted entirely since then. If anything, this is more of a sequel to his last record, 2011’s ‘Tomboy’, also made with producer (and ex-Spacemen 3 godhead) Pete ‘Sonic Boom’ Kember. Like ‘Tomboy’, it’s often concise, sparse and tight.
Lennox has always been the Animal Collective member with the most pop instincts. Whereas Avey Tare once took a solo record he’d made, reversed each track, then released it (2007’s ‘Pullhair Rubeye’), Panda seems like he’d have an opinion on the new Lykke Li as much as the new Flying Lotus. These pop instincts have their coming-out party in the camp final third here. ‘Selfish Gene’ sounds like Abba working for NASA. ‘Principe Real’ is a future alt-pop classic to go alongside ‘Person Pitch’’s ‘Bros’ – a mix of mid-’70s Lennon, mid-’80s Wham! and right-about-now Peaking Lights. It all adds up to Panda Bear’s ‘White Album’: wilfully diverse, and in love with its own melodic charm.
Not that the album’s cartoonish aspect means this is Panda Bear Sells Out. Far from it. Take the krauty ‘Boys Latin’. There’s a gang chant in usual Panda style (Lennox caterwauling different parts of the melody back to himself). Here, though, it’s accelerated; as the call-and-response parts chase each other like the Roadrunner and Wiley Coyote, it feels like the song could topple in on itself. What Panda Bear does is so uniquely his own that it’s also become easily satirisable. Yet any sense that Lennox has relinquished his ability to give us the shock of the new is answered in that moment. He’s still out ahead of the pack, still capable of surprising and, maybe, more fun than he’s ever been.