Buoys – Panda Bear
Whether with Animal Collective on Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009) or solo on Person Pitch (2007), Panda Bear (AKA Noah Lennox) has always produced his best music with an approach that is heavy on samples and his own voice – and that music is some of the best of the century so far. The forty-year-old Baltimorean now lives in Lisbon, and Buoys is his fifth solo album. Lennox’s songs, like ‘Daily Routine’, can be so inventive and complex that you can scarcely conceive of how someone was able to imagine them before they were recorded. Yet they also possess a childlike ecstasy, an exuberance and lightness that is completely free of any trace of the intense mental and physical achievement that went into their creation. Other songs, like ‘Comfy in Nautica’, sound like field recordings from inside the mind of Brian Wilson after dropping acid, with layer-upon-layer of hypnotic harmonies.
It’s emblematic of a big shift then that Buoysjettisons almost all the approaches that have worked so well for Lennox in the past in favour of a new formula. In an unexpected pivot towards Leonard Cohen territory, these songs find Lennox crooning over acoustic guitar, with filters and wacky sound effects tacked on afterwards. Gone is the gleeful maximalism, gone is the utopian synthesis of the digital and the organic, gone even is the characteristic golden hue of Lennox’s voice. Listen to ‘Dolphin’ – rather than projecting with instinctive, infectious confidence from the back of the throat, Lennox is chewing over every note in his mouth, subduing them, mulling over them, Morrisseyfying them. His voice is perfectly pleasant like this, but his vocal melodies struggle to plot effective courses through this unfamiliar territory.
Change is no bad thing in itself of course. But these songs don’t just fail to hit the spot in the way we’ve come to expect from Panda Bear, they also just don’t hit the spot. Lennox has never really been a consistently strong enough lyricist to warrant keen focus on his vocals – when his mantras are layered and interleaved in dizzying towers of harmony then it works beautifully, but they really function like another dazzling instrumental layer. By paring back his sound to vocals and guitar, it seems as if he’s signalling a shift towards greater profundity. But then all that tracks like ‘Token’ reward close listening with are lines like “A blast from an automatic/Smooth no jamming/A slap on a jelly ass”. Or help yourself to the trite life advice of ‘Cranked’: “Guy on the ropes/Yes you can/Don’t give up hope/Start again”. While Lennox does at times allude to the pleasures of family life, finding happiness in commitment and responsibility (just like on Animal Collective’s paradigm-shifting ‘My Girls’), the constant coating of his vocals in echo or other forms of modulation serves as a disguise that keeps us disconnected from whatever emotional content there might be to Lennox’s words here, which further reinforces the strange incongruity of inviting focus onto lyrics which offer very little.
What is gone from Lennox’s sound is what made him great, and what remains is somewhat baffling. These songs are static, their components rarely engaging enough in their own right nor interacting with each other, rather simply sitting adjacently in the mix like strangers in a doctor’s waiting room. There are billions of ways a musical genius like Lennox could create amazing music with an acoustic guitar and a hundredth of his technical prowess of course, and Animal Collective previously made great music in guitar-based territory, like on Sung Tongs. But Lennox simply doesn’t play to his strengths here, nor bring enough energy. Instead, he seems to be forcing himself to draw upon talents that he’s never needed to cultivate before. The result is a so-so album of psychedelic pastoral pop with a heavy dose of wackiness, which comes across more like a pastiche of Lennox’s imprimatur than the touch of his genius. Buoyssounds tired, too tired even to notice its own lack of good ideas.