Panda Bear was 22 when he made Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished with Avey Tare. He was 26 when Sung Tongs came out, 28 when Person Pitch dropped, 30 around the time of Merriweather Post Pavillion. Amid these career milestones, Panda Bear and his Animal Collective cohorts were always seen as a young person’s band. The guys making the music were young too ‒ stoner-ish, T-shirt clad Baltimoreans ‒ and their music reflected that.
Panda Bear is 36 as Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper arrives this week. No, he surely isn’t old, though maybe he feels like he is. He’s not really even middle-aged. The fact is, Panda Bear is inarguably a kid no more. He’s married. He’s a dad. And although references to impending middle age and breadwinning and family life are strewn throughout the last seven or so years of Animal Collective/Panda Bear’s discography (see: “Chores”, “You Can Count on Me”, “Alsatian Darn”, etc.), never has aging been so firmly placed at the center of a Panda Bear album.
Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper feels particularly interested in the process of aging. It’s not so much an album about feeling old, as it is about feeling different compared to the person you were 10 years ago. Everything is relative, everything is comparative. The album therefore takes on a feeling of procession. Each song is pretty strikingly different from the last. This isn’t totally apparent from the first listen. It takes a few times through to understand the way these melodies are shifting and entirely texturally different from song to song.
The album opens with the lurching “Sequential Circuits.” It really feels like a warm-up, though its strange uneasiness feels to sell the ensuing journey of Grim Reaper short. It doesn’t feel like any sort of entrance into what’s to come, and, once you’ve gone through the album, it feels fairly superfluous in hindsight. I would have preferred the album to open with the next song: “Mr Noah.” I’ve already talked in detail about this song on my “best-of” list. The song works incredibly well in the context of this album and is nothing short of a career best. And the rest of the first half is very strong. “Crosswords” is equal parts funky and emotional, and features some great vocals from Lennox. “Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker” hearkens to “Bros” in the best way possible and also cleverly seems to pick up right where “Mr Noah” left off, again creating the feeling of procession on this album, as if we’re making our way toward something. It’s just hard to say what at this point.
“Boys Latin” feels like something of a centerpiece. It sounds a bit more serious and dark than everything that came before it and introduces the less dancey, more intense back half of PBVSGR. I didn’t love the song as a single, but I do think it works much better within the album. That said, I still think it showcases some of the more irritating sides of Panda Bear’s excessively rhythmic style, never appearing quite as urgent as it probably should. The highlight of the album’s second half (though there are several candidates) is probably “Tropic of Cancer,” an absolutely gorgeous, sad song that sees Panda Bear stretch himself more than he ever has. “Lonely Wanderer” feels like a throwback to Feels-era Animal Collective and “Selfish Gene” is another instance where Panda Bear really looks inward to make a poignant, universal statement about love. “Acid Wash” closes the album out in triumphant, exciting fashion.
This is a substantial work. It isn’t perfect, sure. It’s not quite the pop masterpiece that Person Pitch was, and I even hesitate to put it ahead of Tomboy (an eternally underrated album). But this is still Panda Bear creating distinct, rewarding music. From Young Prayer to Grim Reaper, from “Sequential Circuits” to “Acid Wash,” from his Panda Bear stage name to his given Noah Lennox name (which he may soon reassume), we’re witnessing an artist who’s come a long way. While this feels like an album of perceptible change, it thankfully doesn’t feel like an end to what has consistently been an exciting artistic career.