Panda Bear is the stage name of Noah Lennox, a founding member of Animal Collective and pioneer of the musical movement “chillwave.” The genre uses heavy synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines and repetitive dance melodies to create songs that weave and unfold rather than drive toward a certain point.
This sound was perfected in Panda Bear’s highly-acclaimed 2007 album, “Person Pitch,” and its success opened a new era for Lennox, Animal Collective and the entirety of electronic indie music. It also set the bar extremely high for Panda Bear’s latest album, “Tomboy.”
Fans of “Person Pitch” and Animal Collective’s magnificent breakthrough “Merriweather Post Pavilion” may be disappointed in Lennox’s departure from chillwave standards. “Tomboy” is more straightforward and rhythm-driven, which Lennox stated on the Paw Tracks website was due to “thinking about Nirvana and the White Stripes.”
His reverberating echoes and refrains still dominate, but they feel darker and more visceral. This may be due to Lennox recording “Tomboy” in a basement studio sans windows, where he would turn off the lights and record. He is also known to be heavily influenced by the tall, echoing rooms of cathedrals in Lisbon, where he lives.
Whereas “Person Pitch” was a colorful exploration of the world, “Tomboy,” is a black-and-white look inward, which is reflected in the cover art. In the title track, Lennox sings, “Open my eyes so I might see mine,” which contributes to the album feeling like a lucid dream. The next track chants, “It’s what they don’t say / That’s what counts / Deep down / What counts,” as if Lennox questions humanity’s internal character. Futuristic chants in hollow cathedrals are present on tracks like “You Can Count on Me” and “Drone,” which act like mantras leading to some kind of spiritual revelation.
When Lennox bends his voice and crosses into falsetto, it is as though his larynx is possessed by the same spirit that possesses Brian Wilson. Heard in “Surfer’s Hymn,” Lennox’s chord progressions, surf-pop influences, and technical innovations on “Tomboy” are also similar to Wilson’s during his artistic growth with the Beach Boys in the mid-1960s. Few artists have both the ambition and talent to craft extremely difficult arrangements and pass them off as accessible pop songs.
In an interview with NPR, Lennox stated that he likes to think of his samples and unconventional effects as “salt and pepper—you put these weird little sounds in there to spice up the song.” In the same sense, his intricate, interweaving arrangements on “Tomboy” rival the zest of Steve Reich, but with more of a poppy kick.
The downside of Lennox’s cuisine is that “Tomboy” can be too dense to finish in one sitting. The meal might be best enjoyed by taking a break after “Last Night at the Jetty” and continuing the second half later. In this way, “Tomboy” lacks cohesiveness, most likely due to each song being longer than a typical single but shorter than the engrossing 12-minute epics like “Bro’s” on “Person Pitch.” Lennox’s grand ideas that were spread out on the long epics are now compacted on “Tomboy,” making the album feel more intense and heavy. “Tomboy” lacks a climactic peak and swift falling action to help through the last leg.
Nevertheless, Panda Bear’s genius still shows on “Tomboy.” Lennox demonstrates his mastery of beats on “Slow Motion,” his gift for hooks on “Last Night at the Jetty,” and his universal wisdom on “Benfica,” where he chants, “There is nothing more true or natural than wanting to win / There’s nothing more to life / Nothing more,” over the sound of spiraling wind. He may not have produced an album better than “Person Pitch,” but if you listen to “Tomboy,” you can tell that he wanted to.