Though it’s not always obvious, the Grim Reaper has been hanging behind Panda Bear and his Animal Collective compatriots for years. The hood and scythe were always more distinct in the murky production and gritty howls of Avey Tare than in Noah Lennox’s beautiful harmonies and sorbet psychedelia, but even the tender, acoustic Young Prayer has its darkness — the album was written as a means to cheer up his father, who was dying of brain cancer. Lennox takes a more explicit look at death on his new LP, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. Unlike Tare’s mortality-driven album (the superb Down There, which chronicled his sister’s fight with cancer), Panda Bear’s aesthetic stays out of the darkest, grimiest corners.
Lennox isn’t trying to avoid those corners; he’s just not wallowing in the muck and mire. He’s looking at death with a blasé raised eyebrow, aware that it’s constantly around the corner but trying to keep on finding happiness anyway. While that makes Meets the Grim Reaper another bubbling, multivalent production full of soaring vocal harmonies, the LP sometimes lacks in the catharsis that its subject matter would seem to require.
Meeting the Grim Reaper sounds pretty alright as the album opens; rippling water effects and satin vocals make “Sequential Circuits” a pleasant introduction. The whimpering dogs on “Mr. Noah” are more in line with a world where the Reaper looms, and the toothy, squared synths recall the dark futurist sounds of Animal Collective’s last album, Centipede Hz. The single’s itchy groove makes it one of the album’s best as it finds Lennox combating pain. The first verse describes a dog getting “bit on a leg,” and the second plays on two meanings of the word “trip”: the wounded leg could cause a stumble, but the word also refers to the potential escapist power of drugs. But Lennox won’t be dominated by death: “Upon the gusts he glides/ Brittle mind, gentle mind/ Towards a bigger sign.”
The dog with the hurt leg pops up again on “Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker”, but in an even less concrete exploration of pain. The blur of exclusion and disconnection (the chorus is just a repetition of the line “You really shouldn’t bring that other guy”) is a difficult narrative to follow, but the hook still sinks right in. The following “Boys Latin” is similarly effective in its earworm strength, even if the pain isn’t quite clear. The vocal effect makes the lyrics hard to pick out, but his repeated insistence that the “dark cloud descended again/ And a shadow moves in the darkness” pairs with the drippy synth bass without any hint of impending doom. Panda Bear’s never been particularly interested in drawing out precise, detail-rich narratives, but he’s clearly tying things together here, from the album title through multiple interlocking tracks, which makes the barely there connections a little distracting.
This separation between lyrical content and sound hampers a few tracks, but also accentuates others. As much as death itself, the pains of the past, the worries of the future, and their intersections seem to drive the lyrics. The frozen-in-time harp sample on “Tropic of Cancer” (taken from the “Nutcracker” suite) lingers like a childhood dream while Lennox uses his Beach Boys harmonies to explore his father’s death. “It’s all in the family,” he begins, reinforcing the childlike tone, but also the potential hereditary nature of his father’s illness. Next, he reiterates death’s finality (“And you won’t come back/ You can’t come back,” he loops). The song, then, offers what might be his strongest response to mortality: “Got to like it all/ Got to like what kills/ It kills just to like what kills/ Got to like it all.” Everything dies, and it’s painful to love things that die, but it’s essential to living happily.
Following “Tropic of Cancer” are two dreamy tracks that seem to connect this struggle to keep on loving to a video game (accompanying imagery shows Lennox holding a game controller). The first is an instrumental called “Shadow of the Colossus”, which shares its title with an adventure game in which a man named Wander must travel to a forbidden land in order to defeat many monstrous colossusi and restore the life of a woman. The following track is called “Lonely Wanderer”, but rather than fight monsters, Panda Bear asks questions about whether one should look back on life and whether it was all worthwhile. It’s a chilly track, but one that wants for a bit of muscle, some sort of movement or answer amid all the questions.
The lack of catharsis on that track in particular and elsewhere on the album act as a lull in the narrative before coming to the answers on tracks like “Selfish Gene” (“You’ll trip up again/ You’ll trip up again/ Go get up again”). A good story isn’t a constant barrage of explosions and exclamation marks; it has its ups and downs, its problems and solutions. Plus, there can’t really be a lot of catharsis — Lennox is meeting the Grim Reaper, after all, not fighting him. One would think, though, that even meeting the Grim Reaper would mean a little more darkness in the formula, resulting in either messier questions or more explosive answers. Instead, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper rides high on his proven strengths, but doesn’t exactly explore new territory.
Essential Tracks: “Tropic of Cancer”, “Mr. Noah”, and “Boys Latin”