Leading up to the release of “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper,” Noah Lennox (pictured), who performs as Panda Bear, said in several interviews he wanted to make his songs less personal.
“Before making this stuff I had done a lot of introspection and I was using the music as almost a diary,” he said in a profile with the website Boiler Room before performing a show at the Museum of Modern Art. “But there’s a point where introspection turns into self-obsession or narcissism, so it’s always a very careful process to take the lyrical content and address stuff that was a lot bigger than myself.”
He told Entertainment Weekly that with this new album “the impulse was always to remove anything that I felt was specific to my experience.”
This comes across as a bit of unnecessary modesty. Many of the best Panda Bear songs are great because they’re personal. The way Lennox intertwines his vocal delivery with the emotions he’s projecting works as a guide, and that element is as much a part of the songs about depression, relationships, and other themes on “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper.”
As both a solo performer and member of the Baltimore-reared psych-pop outfit Animal Collective, Lennox has always penned lyrics as though they’re something of an existential, inward-looking exercise. We as listeners have been brought into some of Lennox’s innermost moments of doubt and triumph, as if the act of committing the words to a song somehow helps him work through the thoughts in his head.
The lines are often very basic, mere fragments that build on an idea but maintain a small sense of ambiguity. Lennox’s verbal elongations can make deciphering a little difficult on first listen. And even though they’re washed over with whirring, kaleidoscopic sounds and samples, and certain syllables are stretched like taffy or a phrase is repeated with a rhythmic pitter-patter, those sung lyrics rise to the top and catch the ear. Sometimes what’s revealed is the mundane, like the story of an old family dog (‘Derek’) or walking through the city with his child (‘Daily Routine’). There’s often something more. In ‘Take Pills,’ he expresses his doubts about people’s reliance on antidepressants through the context of his mother’s own loneliness as an empty nester. The first part of ‘Good Girls/Carrots’ deals with his own anxieties (“Isn’t there anyone else in this place/ Who can tell me right now don’t be afraid”) and the calming presence of his wife. ‘Friendship Bracelet’ confronts an all-too-common realization for people in their 20s and 30s: growing apart from some of your closest friends and coming to accept it.
Over the course of different albums and across his two projects, several story arcs develop. There is his reticence for having children (‘I’m Not’), which grows into a commitment of paternal responsibility, in the name of his own deceased father (‘My Girls’), and, later, a renewal of that pledge (‘You Can Count On Me’). There’s a strongly worded push for distance from his brother (‘Bros’), and then a joyous show of support (‘Brother Sport’).
You get the idea. This is not unique to Panda Bear’s music, far from it. But there’s something about his elegant warble—it’s nearly impossible to find a review that doesn’t compare his vocal tone to either Brian Wilson or a choirboy—that makes this act feel more fragile and vulnerable. Events cast in a positive light—reveling in personal growth on ‘Ponytail,’ the stadium chant of the innate human desire to win in ‘Benfica’—still bear the mark of a singer wearing his heart on his sleeve.
So what do we get on the purportedly more withdrawn “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper”? The title connotes some sort of close-to-midlife grappling with death, but it’s not really that (except on ‘Lonely Wanderer,’ when he poses the questions “What have you done?” “What did you do?” “How do you feel?” and “Was it worthwhile?”). There’s fewer uses of “I” and the references aren’t as direct, but I can’t help but feel like the songs are still imbued with Lennox’s life itself. A track-by-track guide he gave to the Fader shows that this is not entirely wrong, with many of the origin stories for each song rooted in Lennox’s day-to-day life. ‘Boys Latin,’ named for the school, Boy’s Latin, here in town, has a pingponging vocal about how humans can get lost in the darkness of their own minds. ‘Tropic of Cancer’ begins with an anecdote about his father’s death from a cancerous tumor. (Aside: Panda Bear’s second solo album, “Young Prayer,” is directly inspired by these events. Though it is mostly wordless, Lennox’s vocal performance feels like its own kind of mourning, like he’s willing sounds out of himself to express his feeling of loss. It’s hard to listen to without welling up.)
Our own experiences shape our perceptions of the world, and this is no less true for the songwriter or artist. Even when a work is entirely fiction, there is some sort of humanity that comes across. One of Lennox’s great talents as a writer is the ability to create empathy by lending his voice to real, true emotion. His emotions. But there’s enough room in the rather dense stew of sound and the simplistic words to graft our own thoughts and feelings. Who can’t hear the long, drawn-out coo of “I’m not/ ready/ for it” and not call back to some overwhelming moment of change in our own lives? Being a father isn’t even in the periphery of my life, but there’s a certain tenderness to ‘You Can Count On Me’ that makes the idea very present, almost visceral.
On a sheet of paper, the words themselves are not that impressive—it’s the way in which they’re conveyed that gives them a sort of gravity, a tangibility. That’s no less true on “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper”; maybe it’s even more true, given the broader and more general themes intended. What’s true of all the songs is the way they invoke reflection on processes and thoughts, the ways our minds work—whether it be his, ours, or both.