Noah Lennox’s frenetic soundscapes, whether as solo artist or Animal Collective frontman, never fail to disorient and please the listener, often at the same time. His fifth solo record, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, sees a shift in trajectory from his older, more progressive outputs, and instead finally presents Panda Bear as a (relatively) settled down artist. Of course the overwhelming array of noise, reverb, and gorgeous vocals are still all over the place, but for once Lennox seems to be honing in on an already established sound instead of bringing even more to the table.
Overall, the record most closely resembles the wobbly, mid tempo funk of Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz, but expands upon it. Tracks like the euphoric “Boys Latin” exemplify the best of Lennox’s haunting, wispy vocals over a streamlined dance groove without falling into unnecessary repetition. On the other hand, songs like “Come To Your Senses” and “Acid Wash” also perfectly fit with this style, but fail to deviate enough from the droning grooves that they become. Yet, even when sections drag on, Grim Reaper consistently sounds bubbly and exciting, and hides intricate patterns that require multiple listens to fully appreciate. The self conscious title of the album itself also helps assert the feeling that Panda Bear intends this record as a contemplative celebration, full of complexities and contradictions that come with the responsibility of becoming a father. “Mr. Noah” and “Crosswords” are the tracks that best showcase the fun side to the record, but they do have their share of dissonance and confusion.
The second half picks up better pace with a string of quieter, simple songs that rely on Lennox’s beautiful vocals. “Tropic of Cancer” builds off a melodious harp sampled from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker over which he repeatedly meditates “It’s all in the family / and then you sneak it all away”. Combined with the piano arpeggios of “Lonely Wanderer”, these two songs stand ground as the center of the album, which everything else rotates around. From there on out, the songs try to stay up to par with that one-two punch, and mostly succeed. “Principle Real” exemplifies the best of Panda Bear’s eccentric take on danceable music, and “Selfish Gone” drifts in and out of ethereality with its beatless rhythms.
At this point in his established career Lennox understands better than nearly anyone how and when to repeat patterns and motifs for them to remain interesting, and Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper tightly showcases his paradoxical blend of oversimplification and complexity. Without any drastic shifts in style, the album stays grounded long enough for listeners to catch onto Panda Bear’s songwriting genius and intricate melodies without fully grasping them.