Over the course of 20 years of work, Noah Lennox cultivated a musical identity that was unmistakably his own. Under the name Panda Bear, Lennox pushed boundaries with both the colorfully saturated sample collages of his 2007 solo album, Person Pitch, and the psychedelic tangle of electronics and warped guitars on Animal Collective's 2009 watershed, Merriweather Post Pavilion. These were definitive albums for both Lennox and independent music-making at large, and he continued to look for new angles on his maxed-out sounds with successive albums. Buoys, Lennox's sixth Panda Bear full-length, takes his sonic construction to new places by stripping away some of the layers that had become commonplace. Instead of the usual stacks of samples, sparkling harmonies, and tumbling loops, much of Buoys is built around a backbone of spare acoustic guitar. Other elements fill space minimally, with a tendency towards deep bass, sparse drum programming, and auto-tuned vocal phrases. Producer Rusty Santos joins Lennox again for the first time since their work together on Person Pitch, and there's a familiarity to their chemistry. Santos engineered Animal Collective's acoustic, folk-leaning 2004 breakthrough, Sung Tongs, and the lilting fingerpicked arpeggios of "Token" and the slowly unfolding chord progression of "Inner Monologue" recall the dreamy, wandering feeling of that album. With the nine songs on this relatively short album, its creators looked to music popular among younger demographics of the time, informing the production with hints taken from modern rap and pop of the late 2010s. The skeletal arrangements and auto-tuned vocals might have some commonalities with certain mainstream productions, but the approach is unique. A beat made up of steady hi-hats and a grating water droplet sample open up "Dolphin," but with the first downstroke of fluttering acoustic guitar and easy notes of Lennox's falsetto croon, any similarities to modern production end. Though Buoys is by far the most spacious work in Panda Bear's catalog since the acoustic ether of 2004's Young Prayer, there's an emotional complexity that's inextricable from Lennox's work that occupies space in even his most minimal compositions. Complex ruminations on death and family have been at the core of Panda Bear's work from the start, and those themes continue here. "Master" delivers its optimistic lines gently, like a parent speaking patiently to a child, and album closer "Home Free" wades through waves of delay as Lennox sounds like he's running from the inevitable passage of time. The irony here is that Panda Bear's work with sampling, repetition, and watery soundscapes might have had more of an influence than he knows on the type of production Buoys is seeking to emulate. Though the album is a step in a different direction, the path might be circular, leading back to where he began. The relatively empty arrangements take a few listens to latch on, but their openness showcases Lennox's gifts for honest, fearless songwriting. Try as he may to embrace external influences, Panda Bear remains inescapably himself.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas