As Panda Bear, Animal Collective member Noah Lennox's solo work patiently evolved from early folk jumble to the transcendent, sample-based bliss of 2007's Person Pitch to the weighty, darker minimalism of 2011's Tomboy. With fifth album Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, Lennox offers up a collection of songs that bring together the best aspects of his intensely personal, slow-motion journey through sound, feeling sharper, more deliberate, and more positive than at any point prior. While Person Pitch's mesh of melody and texture was revelational, the stew of samples, reverb, and vocal layering could get a little fuzzy around the edges. Same went for the sometimes gloomy murk of Tomboy, an album whose emotional core still sometimes felt vague even after the usual sonic clutter had been stripped away. Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper sidesteps both of these issues, coming on as strong as Lennox's most composed pop songs with Animal Collective. By this point in his discography, Panda Bear's trademark sounds are well-established and immediately recognizable even from the first strains of album-opener "Sequential Circuits." Equal parts simple synth drones and jarring, animal-like sound effects serve as the unlikely backdrop for layers of Lennox's distinctive self-harmonizing vocals, always heavy on Beach Boys influence but developed by now into something all their own. When things lean more toward rhythmic electro-pop, catchy, pounding grooves like "Mr. Noah," or the stumbling, Dilla-indebted beat of "Latin Boys," offer all the clarity and hookiness of Merriweather Post Pavilion-era Animal Collective hits like "My Girls." Repetition has always been a fascination for Lennox, be it the influence of minimal techno or experimentation with phasing inspired by 20th century composers like Steve Reich. Repetition coagulates nicely with watery synth grooves on album highlight "Come to Your Senses," with the lyrics "Are you mad?", repeating in a mantra-like chant until the listener has no choice but to consider the various, different interpretations of this simple three-word question. Even in the darker moments of the album, PBMTGR has an inherent lightheartedness which was sorely missed on the occasionally world-weary or frightened-sounding Tomboy. Tunes like "Tropic of Cancer" (built around a Christmas-time harp sample that sounds both heavenly and corny) and "Lonely Wanderer" are softly sad, but retain a certain optimism and wistfulness that could sometimes get lost on the more crooning, thoughtful moments of previous albums. Striking a balance between hypnotic pop and cloudy soul-searching, the album delivers all the ends of the spectrum Lennox has spent years perfecting, giving fully realized and refreshingly jubilant examples of a type of pop music so distinctive to its creator, he ends up in a class by himself.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas