In its 15-year career, Animal Collective has only maybe an album’s worth of accessible music. Though the ingredients have changed over time, the band’s recipe has always been their own. They’ve never kowtowed to a label, marketing executive, or anyone outside of their own bizarre creative purview. That’s part of what makes them so fascinating: playing an Animal Collective album is like peeking into a petri dish of alien organisms once every few years. You never know what strange form will pop out, but it’s always enlightening.
Of the group’s four members, Panda Bear, AKA Noah Lennox, is most capable of producing something akin to modern pop music. On his near-immaculate debut “Person Pitch,” Lennox presented himself as a sound collagist with a penchant for Brian Wilson, warbling in an alter-boy tenor over stacks of untraceable instrumentation and effects. 2011’s “Tomboy” was geared more towards a live setting, switching out tape loops for simple rhythms that suggested Lennox was trending towards a more organic sound.
“Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper” puts a kink in that theory. A logical successor to Panda Bear’s ever-evening keel would have been minimalist fare, maybe just spoken word backed by a few strokes of a marimba. Instead, Lennox plunges into a gurgling synthetic soundscape for much of the album, shot through with skittering arpeggios and static-y bass booms. His vocals are less angelic than ominously shamanistic here and perhaps more obscured than ever, which is saying a lot. That can be frustrating, but as with Lennox’s earlier work, words and concepts spring up with repeated listens. (For example, how in “Mr. Noah,” the sound of the whimpering dog cues us into the lyric: “This dog got bit on the leg.”)
Most of the aforementioned chaos is confined to the first half, which varies considerably from the second. “Sequential Circuits” through “Come To Your Senses” is a modern day psychotronic soundtrack, but made somewhat club-worthy thanks to Lennox’s competent rhythm work. You’ll often hear folks ask how people can dance to Animal Collective, but many songs on the first half are straightforward four-to-the-floor beats (esp. “Crosswords”). Whether you’d actually want to is a different story—“PBMTGR” works best as a headphones excursion—but yeah, you could.
The second half is more of what you would expect from Panda Bear following his last LPs. With its harp and a return of Lennox’s gentle falsetto, “Tropic of Cancer” has Panda Bear decamping from the swamp back to the beach. It works wonderfully in the flow of the album, easing the listener into an eddy of peaceful introspection, even if only to be pressure washed away a few tracks later with the startling finisher, “Acid Wash.” But we get intelligible lyrics in “Tropic of Cancer,” lending the outing some finite sentiment—a glum but knowingly futile resistance to death, a faint suggestion that “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper” is a sheepish cover for “Panda Bear Versus The Grim Reaper.”
Like so many A.C. albums, “Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper” is delightfully weird. Even as the least accessible Panda Bear album, its insistence on rhythm makes it a likable first listen that blossoms with each one thereafter. Just two weeks in, 2015 is already shaping up to be a promising year for oddball electronic releases. Here’s hoping what’s to come follows suit.
Dylan Owens writes album reviews, essays and features for Reverb. You can read more from him on his website, or the comment sections of WORLDSTARHIPHOP.