Part of what makes Animal Collective the most fantastically diverse act in music is how every member brings something different to the table: Avey Tare brings crunch and rawness, Geologist brings a love of odd textures, Deakin brings… erm… I’m not sure - maybe a bit of madness. He was absent for Merriweather Post Pavilion and it was simultaneously their most controlled and their most fantastic release yet. Panda Bear brings a love of harmonics that led super-critic, Robert Christgau, to dismiss Merriweather simply by quoting Beach Boys. That tendency to turn 21st Century Beach Boys infects all the band’s albums, serving as a messy, mad, and sometimes wonderful way of covering up vocal deficiencies.
On Panda Bear’s solo work it comes out even stronger. Person Pitch was a mad, weird set of extended suites of pure harmonics - sometimes pushing over a dozen minutes - the highlights of which are some of the most fascinating, mesmerising music you’ll hear this century. Follow up, Tomboy, was more tame, and suffered for it.
New release, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, is somewhere in between the two. It doesn’t push to the extremes of Person Pitch, but doesn’t drift off into the sonic somnambulism of its lesser cuts. It has more character and verve than Tomboy, but retains the measured consistency that was also that album’s undoing in a way.
What we get instead is an album that has Panda Bear’s trademark vocal texturing, allied to a bounce and energy reminiscent of Centipede Hz’s finest hours. With songs like standout, Mr. Noah, we get a weird, trippy, dub-drenched piece of p-arty pop. That it’s able to balance the fun with the frantic inventiveness is down to the same joyous blend of wide-eyed, child-like wonder, and fully grown up emotiveness – that classically Brian Wilson effect of latent anxiety making the fun that much more invigorating and sincere – that has defined Animal Collective’s finest hours.
That melancholy that quietly underlies so much of Panda Bear’s work comes to the fore most clearly on album centrepiece, Tropic Of Cancer. With Animal Collective’s reputation as a fun, weird band in mind, the title, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, would seem to promise an oddly macabre adventure, with hijinks aplenty and typically infectious energy. Over the six minutes of this mournful, harp-led dirge, the album unfurls itself for the pensive piece that it really is. Through Animal Collective, Panda Bear has touched on his father’s death from cancer, but here there’s no escaping its shadow, rendered almost into a lullaby in a refrain that sighs:
And you can’t come back, You won’t come back, You can’t come back to it.
The tropical locale of the song title and the lightly Hawaiian lilt, speak of the same covering up that he laments throughout the song. It’s a moment of rare clarity and quiet in the midst of the swirl, casting the album in a new light - one that pierces through the layers of joyous whirling to a centre that is tinged with a sadness and emotional weight that speaks more powerfully than any of the abstractions of his other work ever could. The swirling soundscapes that bury these more mournful moments are almost intimidatingly dense, but perhaps not quite as immersive as they could be. At times, they lapse into a meditative lull that harks back to Bros. – Person Pitch’s defining statement - and at those moments, as on Boys Latin, the album becomes something to really sink into.
The tendency to regularly stretch these soothing sojourns past the five minute mark does mean the album overstays its welcome, however. At the mid-point, we see the sludge-y bog of Come To Your Senses (over seven minutes long) stretch itself much too thin for what is already one of the least musically engaging tracks on the album. At other points, such as Butcher Baker Candles, it perhaps bounces without the flex in between. It’s oddly rigid, as much of the album is, in truth, suspended on beats that are thick and pushed way up front.
But Panda Bear’s vocal magic can usually carry the day, and often intertwines in bizarrely hypnotic fashion with the pounding sounds around him. All the same, as a whole, at 51 minutes long it lacks the proper variety to sustain itself, and album closer, Acid Wash, is a bum note to end a largely impressive album on.
Where last year’s Slasher Flicks by Avey Tare was a release that stood on its own (and not with much distinction), Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper is an album that any fan of latter day Animal Collective will appreciate. His brand is perhaps the most distinctive, and, probably, the most crucial to the collective. It lacks the dynamism and wonderful contrasts that make their work so strikingly compelling, but the result is a more inoffensive, meditative, and ultimately accessible work.