Panda Bear stands on a raised platform, shielded by the control panel that is his instrument. He’s inside the Boiler Room dome at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, NY. The walls are plastered with running video that often devolves into grotesque montage: a pile of snakes, lips, cow stomachs, aliens, and a female Grim Reaper — scythe and all. Near the end of the set, the Grim Reaper cradles and then obliterates a panda bear doll, making a pretty on-the-nose allusion to the title of Panda Bear’s latest album, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. It’s an image ripe with jokeyness, and it seems to indicate that Panda Bear — aka Noah Lennox — doesn’t much fear the reaper.
The ability to talk about — or create art about — death in a way that eschews morbidity is only gleaned from a familiarity with it, or even just surrendering to the inevitability of the thing. One of the greatest challenges for living humans is coming to terms with the fact that, yeah, we’re all gonna die, and that’s OK. And once that’s done, what are we left with, if not the obligation to recontextualize something so frightening as something exciting, or maybe even comforting? Tracing the albums he’s made over the past decade-and-a-half, it becomes obvious that Noah Lennox has done exactly that.
That said, death is not what springs to mind when one hears Panda Bear — either the name or the music of Noah Lennox, who has operated under that moniker since the mid-‘90s. He released his first self-titled album in 1998, and it was an hour of electronic sketches; its pretty, spare percussion was a sign of what would follow in the next six years of Animal Collective albums, but those sounds hardly found on Panda Bear’s second solo release, Young Prayer. Instead, that album reduced his sonic arsenal to his yawning voice and dragged guitar, and pinpointed his vision to one thing: death.
Young Prayer, released in 2004, was in response to and in grievance of his father’s dying and death. On the album, which was conceptualized in studios but finally recorded in the actual hospital room in which his father died, Lennox sometimes sounds as if he is crying, or maybe even dying. It’s nearly thirty minutes of that. All of the tracks are untitled. Few of them have lyrics, and when they do, they’re brief.
Five tracks in, Lennox, singing with himself, chants these lines, over and over, “I will have sons and daughters, /And I will say/ ‘Here are your grandchildren’/And you will see them.” Lennox’s intent was to create a seamless piece of music that would ensnare the listener in his grief as he wallowed in it. It’s catharsis, but it’s not cathartic. In that sense, it’s in direct contrast to Lennox’s follow-up record, 2007’s Person Pitch, an album also about death — but of a different nature.
To fully understand the music of Lennox is to give oneself up to the psychedelic worlds he creates within it. His songs, especially on his first few albums with and without Animal Collective, often break the five-minute mark (“Visiting Friends,” “The Purple Bottle,” “Banshee Beat,” on and on). Mostly, they begin modestly — the hooting of an owl, the breaking of a wave — and pile elements upon elements, his choir-like vocal harmonies coalescing with the odd syncopation of his junkpile beats. The result can be off-putting — there’s eeriness in his music, whether in his flighty vocal melodies or the sometimes dirty sounds he chooses or, most likely, his combining the two. Lennox seems to be aware of this. Hell, it might even be his intention. But the magic in his music is in its length, the way a 12-minute song like Person Pitch’s “Bros” takes you, willing or not, into its world and forces familiarization. It’s in this way that — bear with me — Lennox’s music itself works kind of like death.
It’s the way any concept works, really. From a distance, it’s all scary: music, animals, strangers, death. Familiarization breeds vulnerability. And that can be approached in two ways: to become aware of it, and increase one’s guard; or to embrace it, and try to get to know the thing as closely as possible. This is the case with Panda Bear and death. He has met the Grim Reaper, and he’s fine with it. He wants to know it; he wants us to know it.
In a recent SPIN interview, Lennox described his views on death: “I think I’m at a point, especially having children and being in sort of a middle-aged zone — I’m 36 — [where] thinking about that stuff becomes a much more… it gets a lot closer [and] definitely becomes a thing you can reach out and touch a little bit.” The interview is from this year, but Lennox’s views on death seemed to be growing toward that familiarity for the past decade. Person Pitch’s general mood is one of death and rebirth, whether literally or figuratively (“Take Pills”). This is something that is sometimes difficult to find in Lennox’s lyrics, but is tangible in his actual music.
Person Pitch was less about death and more about not caring so much — about taking life, and fatherhood, as it comes. “Try to remember always to have a good time,” he sings on that album’s “Comfy in Nautica.” His next album, Tomboy, followed that same line, though the sounds moved away from natural soundscapes and toward a more drone-based vibe, with songs like “Alsatian Darn” talking about dropping a “bomb” on where Lennox’s “doubt streams grow.” So, not exactly death — but certainly some existential grief. It’s in this middle ground of grimy sounds and eerie lyricism that Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper mostly exists, but the album’s centerpiece, both structurally and thematically, is “Tropic of Cancer,” one of the strangest, most beautiful songs Lennox has ever created.
It’s safe to say that, in the world of music, “Tropic of Cancer” is an oddity: it is, essentially, a song about forgiving cancer for having killed his father. The song is announced with the blaring of a death procession horn, and then is overcome by gentle strings plucked over crashing waves. “It’s all in the family and then you sneak it all away/ Sick has to eat well too,” he sings, ending the song with, “And you can’t get back, you won’t come back/ You can’t come back to it.” The track that follows is “Lonely Wanderer,” on which Lennox asks, “If you/ Look back/ Would you/ Look back?/ What have you done?/ Was it worthwhile?”
It’s this one-two punch that Lennox’s perception of death, and maybe even life, comes into full view, and it’s a far cry from what he was touting on Young Prayer. Essentially, we’re all going to die, and that’s fine — we just better do everything we can before the Grim Reaper tears us apart. Perhaps Sonic Boom, who partially produced this album, put it best in the album’s liner notes, saying, “If I could sum up The Grim Reaper… You should take it personally. Music from the other side of the river, love’s lexicon transposed across the Styx.”