From the Greek myth of Sisyphus, to The Seventh Seal, to Wayne’s World 2, to Family Guy, few face the Grim Reaper and live to tell about it. And while there might be some literal mortality questioning coming from Noah Lennox, his fifth album as Panda Bear comes at the project’s own strange time. We are three years removed from his last endeavor, Tomboy, an album that managed to be both acclaimed by critics and considered a critical disappointment. This is simply because it paled in comparison to classics of Person Pitch and, with Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavillon. Tomboy felt like the beginning of a let-down period that culminated with the last AnCo affair, Centipede Hz.
Now, let’s get one thing straight: at their most disappointing, the musicians of Animal Collective are never in full misstep mode, never lacking in ambition. But, it wouldn’t be unexpected for listeners to approach Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper with some concern, wondering if Lennox’s best music is behind him.
And maybe that is what makes the oddball directions of this album so rewarding and welcome. Not only does Panda Bear wipe away any fears of having lost his creative juices on his latest LP, he also has made one of his most widely appealing and accessible works yet. Even better, the music strikes as fresh, the energy renewed. “Crosswords” uses a backing that sounds like springs and door stops and buzzers, but ties them all together with Panda Bear’s trademark Beach Boys-esque pop structure sensibilities. Just before, on single “Mr. Noah,” Panda Bear sonically transports listeners to the deep sea or deep space or, well, deep somewhere to create a nightmarish, strutting rock song. It feels like he is almost laughing at listeners for delving into his vision with his “mwhahaha” vocals, but by record’s end, it feels much more like Panda Bear is laughing with us, not at us.
To say Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is a textural album is probably stating the obvious, but it very much is, in a way where the individual tracks feel simultaneously adventurous and tamed, like a dog that knows deep down it’s descended from wolves, wild at heart. “Boys Latin” works from a template of vocal stretching, with Lennox’s rubbery words acting like ping pong balls moving so fast, all the listener can pick up is the light trail of where they once were. “Come to Your Senses” chugs along like a goopy train. “Tropic of Cancer” literally sounds like a heaven in the clouds with angels playing harps. It’s all so evocative, it becomes hard for the listener to get the “dark and abrasive” subject matter that Lennox alludes to in interviews, specifically with Boiler Room, where he notes the album is “about presenting something that we don’t have an easy time dealing with in a costume that’s just a little bit more clown-y.“
And that’s all well and good, but maybe the unintentional reference is that Panda Bear is fighting, and defeating, a creative reaper, the critics that are so quick to bury him and his Collective as past their prime, as declining. The possibly unintentional image is of Panda Bear playing chess with his artistic death and winning, a musical Max von Sydow or Wayne Campbell, with “Acid Wash” a close sonic equivalent to a victory lap. It’s a moment to cheer at. We all win.