Let’s start on a high. Noah Lennox, like his great influence Aphex Twin before him, is a bedroom virtuoso. By that, I mean it’s impossible to imagine that any of his music isn’t made in his bedroom at 4.48 a.m., with all but the dimmest lights shut off and broken curtains drawn recklessly across an open window. Sometimes he achieves a status that befits the true meaning of the word – and sometimes he wipes his bum with it, puts it in a blender, records it and sells it back to you.
Lennox, otherwise known by the moniker Panda Bear (and, as East London will no doubt be screaming by now, as a founding member of Animal Collective) is a genuine talent. Much of the latest album Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper reflects this fact. Take the track ‘Lonely Wanderer’. It has a soft and subtle blend of electronic and instrumental; surreal and sublime. He uses his voice to haunting effect throughout, without making a spectacle of it – and this, at least, could be a sign of suppressing one’s ego in favour of the music at stake.
‘Principle Real’ is more familiarly his ‘style’: it’s difficult (for lack of a better word), but it’s cohesive, and that makes it at least partially coherent on a maiden listen. And that’s what made Animal Collective and Panda Bear so great when they stormed into the public consciousness in the early part of the century – they could make inaccessible music accessible to the masses. Suddenly late teens everywhere were getting the chance to listen to something bold, and unique, and vibrant. Something that takes a bit of effort, but becomes all the more rewarding for repeat listens.
Here’s the problem – and it’s a big one. Panda Bear and Animal Collective are con artists. They might not be so intentionally – in fact, I’d be willing to bet that the largest part of it is not intentional at all. But the truth is a lot of their output stinks – and people keep venerating it. And buying it. Take ‘Mr Noah’, the second track of the album: it’s over four minutes long, and it’s made up of whooshing, whooping, and space invader sounds for the first full minute, before Lennox’s customary, non-specific drone comes in with magnetically oppressive repetitiveness that could give a Fat Boy Slim hook a run for its money. Okay, maybe not that much: it does change a bit, but God it’s dull.
And I could let that go – really I could – but he’s so earnest. He’s so indescribably earnest, it makes you want to smash things, and scream, and write letters with excrement and mail them to high-ranking members of the government, because this is bad, and still every twenty-something man and woman in Shoreditch, or Williamsburg, or [INESERT TRENDY AREA OF YOUR HOME TOWN HERE] will sneer venomously from the insides of their leggings at anyone who dares to suggest that it might actually be the case.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Lennox is brilliant. He can write really interesting, engaging music – why not just keep doing that? ‘Boys Latin’ is a good song for the most part. It’s dark and light and mixes experimental sounds and samples with a tuneful vocal track, which is nonetheless smeared for clarity in what quickly becomes another classic dirge. ‘Come To Your Senses’ is seven and a half minutes long, and if you want to try a neat trick, you can skip to damn near any part of it and the same thing is going on at any one time (I gave it about three full listens before I experimented and found that to be the case). This isn’t about riding a beat, though – it’s not jazz. That’s not to say there isn’t innovation here, but it simply doesn’t have the backbone.
Occasionally we’re treated to inter-track sorbets of sound – to cleanse our palate for the next course no doubt. ‘Shadow of the Colossus’, for example, is 17 seconds of the type of thing they play in Alien when you see the world from the monster’s perspective. Worst of all is the guile the man has to actually sample ‘The Last Post’ at the beginning of ‘Tropic of Cancer’ – no joke. He actually does it. ‘That’s what the lads would have wanted!’, they’d cry – these men died so you could sample a war tribute and sell it back to unsuspecting youths who long desperately to be part of a family, rather than part of a suspiciously flaccid ‘scene’. ‘Tropic of Cancer’ is actually one of the standout songs on the album, but I could barely hold it together long enough to make it through after the opening bars that it references. This is pretentious, pretentious, pretentious.
Go online now and look up interviews. If, by the end of him talking about how important wolf cries and seagull calls are, you don’t want to claw your face off, then I take it all back. It’s obviously just me. Who knows – maybe sampling ‘The Last Post’ is fine these days. Maybe everyone does it – before sampling Wilfred Owen poetry for lyrics, put to the tune of an electronic lute mixed with a fog horn.
If any of you are sat here seething at my audacity, ironically the answer is probably just to listen to some of Panda Bear’s better tracks. They’re great – just don’t bang on about it too much: he’ll start writing you toilet paper again.
Panda Bears Meets The Grim Reaper is out now via Domino.