Review of Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper by Panda Bear

Panda Bear, A.K.A. Noah Lennox, is known in his band Animal Collective for being the foil to the group’s other co-founder, Avey Tare. On his own he is known as the creator of such masterworks as 2007’s looping, melodically-soaked Person Pitch. Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper shows Lennox pulling his now tried-and-true style of circular song structures and catchy melodies into 2015’s post-EDM-explosion world with help from co-producer Sonic Boom (who also worked on Tomboy, Panda Bear’s 2011 album).

As the title suggests, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper seems at times focused on death as a theme. While lyrics make allusions to death, isolation, spirituality, fear, and loneliness, the music is oddly aquatic, sometimes bouncing like the Pacific (see “Mr. Noah,” the easy highlight), sometimes pulling in and out organically as on the placid “Tropic of Cancer.” On every one of the CD’s 13 tracks, elements of Panda Bear’s work so far have been distilled into their base components and put back together, resulting in an altogether accessible, clutter-free, melody-first, vocals-on-top album. Perhaps in part because of Sonic Boom’s greater involvement in the production of this album, the pop-oriented songs are short, dynamic, and buoyantly propulsive. Meanwhile the longer, drawn-out tracks are more experimental than on previous releases, combining just a few spare elements and only washing over the listener with a couple of themes at a time. While Panda Bear’s best work manages to combine these two sides (see Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, please oh please), the dichotomy is a fascinating one, and one that makes for a unique album in Panda’s discography.

The blend of electronica, rock, and pop found on this album leans further into electronic territory than anything Panda Bear has released yet. Songs pulse with looped beats and seduce with processed vocal melodies that either stack in one-man-chorus harmonies (a trademark Panda Bear trick since, like, 2001) or hang in mid-air, perfectly alone above whatever ocean of sound encompasses the rest of the song. The mix is less organic than it was on Person Pitch, a record that turned 60s psychedelia and 60s-70s pop into a homogenous, tuneful blend. However, that isn’t to say that this album doesn’t sound alive. Bass notes on “Tropic of Cancer” roll like the water at low tide, sparse piano and keyboards throughout the album bob, rise, and crash in imitation of waves, and looped choruses and beats bubble into unforgettable hooks, especially on the building “Boys Latin” and the ephemeral, endlessly-repeatable “Mr. Noah.” The closest approximation of masterful Panda Bear songs of yesteryear (like Person Pitch’s “Bros”), “Come to Your Senses” realigns itself gradually and foams and crests into several hooks, each worth hearing more than a few times.

Lyrically Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is something of a departure from Lennox’s work so far, though the style of the lyrics is still distinctly his own. Spirituality and nature permeate the lyric sheet, with existential paranoia revealing itself in a variety of ways, from the naive calls of “Are you there?” into the beyond on “Come to Your Senses” to the joyously chanted metaphors for depression on “Mr. Noah.” For the most part the sonic elements do the heavy lifting here when it comes to conveying emotion to the listener.

At its tamest this album finds pleasure and satisfaction in the throes of death and at its most exciting it celebrates the trivialities of life in delightful songs that make life more enjoyable. Overall its watery atmosphere reflects the vastness and uncertainty of the universe and the unknown while its bright colors shine hope into even the most despairing of these 51 minutes. Featuring some of Panda Bear’s most danceable tracks and most instant hooks, the album is an indie-nerd DJ’s dream come true. Some day parents will give their children Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper as a playful retrospective introduction to a long line of great work by both Panda on his own and Animal Collective together.