On Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, his fifth solo LP, Noah Lennox aimed to mingle the morbid with the merry: reggae-tinged drum breaks brightening laments about terminal illness and “the myths of romantic love,” jagged synth pulses darkening cyclical nursery rhyme vocals. And that polarity defines the album’s 13 tracks—the most beguiling work of his career.
“Something I thought about was trying to make these kind of children’s songs or old folk songs, national anthems,” says Lennox, also a founding member of indie-psych trendsetters Animal Collective. “These simple, iconic melodies—instantly relatable or familiar in some sense. Sort of like the title, I wanted to connect a sugary element with a more abrasive, darker undercurrent.”
Look no further than lead single “Mr. Noah,” wherein Lennox critiques his own personal inadequacies over open-sore fuzz-guitar ooze, negating the darkness with his eternally boyish voice. “Here comes the loaf again / Drip a lot, drop a lot,” he sings in chromatic runs. “Become an oaf again / Trip a lot, trip a lot / So wide to the other side / Shuts an eye / But he stays like a stump inside.”
Even the album title plays with perception: both cartoonish and brooding at once. Lennox crafted the name as an homage to old-school Jamaican dub records that feature two musicians or producers “meeting” each other on wax. And the Reaper looms large on the lyrics sheet (see: the ambient “Tropic of Cancer,” which explores his father’s death from cancer and attempts to empathize with the disease itself).
But that heavy conceptual framework emerged later on in the process. At the outset, his focus was a pile of fragmented synth grooves and drum breaks—”little rhythmic constructions” he likens to a rap producer’s beats—that became the album’s sonic foundation. Lennox started work on Reaper in early 2012—during the same Texas sessions that yielded Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz. But the bulk of the writing, recording and re-shaping took place at a garage-studio near his longtime home in Lisbon, Portugal—where he lives with his wife and two children (a nine-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy).
“Almost every song happened in a really similar fashion,” he says. “The songs were mostly just drums and a couple other sounds to create this sort of rhythm machine—and that was sort of the target in the beginning. Then I spent a lot of time constructing that Lego structure. Through listening a lot, the singing parts would come into focus a bit—sometimes just a phrase here or phrase there. The words were the very last thing, and I had to fit them into this very specific rhythmic bent that the melodies had, which wasn’t always super easy. A good two-thirds of the life of every song was just getting the rhythmic foundation right, and the more human element was tacked on at the end.”
Veering away from the sampler-heavy approach of 2007’s Person Pitch and the guitar-heavy darkness of 2011’s Tomboy, Lennox worked on music via computer software, constructing layered loops inspired by hip-hop pioneers like J Dilla and A Tribe Called Quest. He even changed his daily work routine—though not by design.
“I used to prefer to make stuff from about midnight to four or five in the morning,” he says. “But since having kids, I’ve had to shift—usually I’ll drop one of the kids off at school, then work till lunch, then again till school is over. So it’s roughly 9:30 to 5 or so. I really didn’t like it at first. I kinda got into the habit where, if I wasn’t feeling something, I would just move to something else—even just reading a manual to a piece of gear. I got into this mindset of, ‘As long as I’m doing something constructive, it’s all leading to this end point where the thing is made and completed.’”
To that end, he once again collaborated with Peter “Sonic Boom” Kember, who worked closely with Lennox on every individual sound: maximizing recorded stems through “a variety of outboard gear,” piecing them together again, and leaving the singer to finish off his vocals. (He also contributed a handful of droning, between-track sound collages, like “Davy Jones’ Locker.”)
Grim Reaper isn’t exactly a stylistic departure: Lennox’s fondness for ping-ponging vocal acrobatics (the hypnotic “Boys Latin”) and, well, reverb make the album a clear cousin to its two predecessors.
The sonic and emotional centerpiece is “Selfish Gene,” a minimalist sea shanty buoyed by a zig-zagging vocal melody. “When at the start it seems like fates / Have set it up like so much magic,” Lennox sings over static synth waves. “Just a ruse to get you in there / Seems like a spell.”
“I guess it’s kind of like an anti-love song,” he says. “Just trying to dig down to what loving somebody is really about. That’s very lofty, I know, but that song attempts to do something like that. There’s a lot of talk about noise in the context of relationships on the song, and that’s what it’s really about: trying to silence the noise that surrounds the process of falling in love with somebody and remaining in love with somebody.”
Reaper feels like the completion of a loose trilogy—expanding upon and refining ideas he’s explored throughout the past few years. And Lennox agrees, though he’s unclear on the implications of that resolution—and where his morphing muse take him next.
“I do have a kind of sense that at least there was some chapter that was started with Person Pitch that’s come full circle, going back to the sampling and all that—even though this was a very different process of making these songs,” he says. “It’s a closing of the chapter and a representation of the whole chapter. But it’s hard to predict. Having just finished the album, there’s really just a big empty space in my brain.”