Genre: Experimental Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Dolphin,” “Cranked,” “Token,” “I Know I Don’t Know,” “Buoys,” “Crescendo,” “Home Free”
At this point in their career, Animal Collective have become the MoMa PS1 VR art exhibition of indie rock groups. Their work remains as dazzling and unreplicable as ever, but despite the sheer quantity of imposing work they drop, their music seems to say less and less with every affiliated release since 2012’s hyperspeed freak-pop opus CENTIPEDE HZ. Last year’s TANGERINE REEF was the first Animal Collective release post-HERE COMES THE INDIAN that I have straight up disliked. But it should also be noted that TANGERINE REEF was also the group’s first record without Noah Lennox, and the result was similar to what would have happened if The Beatles had made a record without Paul McCartney. Thankfully, while the rest of the AnCo boys were busy working on a bubbling and unintelligible flop of a record, Panda Bear was in the studio working on his best instrumental solo material since his 2007 treasure PERSON PITCH.
BUOYS is the first Animal Collective project that fluidly combines electronic and acoustic instrumentation. Records like SUNG TONGS and HOLLINNDAGAIN had an electroacoustic presence, but congealed the two, crafting a one-of-a-kind sound. Panda Bear’s official debut, YOUNG PRAYER, focused on gorgeous minimal acoustic guitar songwriting that sounded like Elliott Smith and Brian Wilson taught an extraterrestrial how to write music. Though the production on BUOYS is definitely a bit more normal than I want from an AnCo project, it also sounds like what I have come to want from Panda Bear as the Daft Punk and Solange collaborator that he now is, delivering songs like “Dolphin,” “Cranked,” and “I Know I Don’t Know,” that make a hell of a lot of sense and represent his absolute best work as a producer and pop music composer.
If BUOYS does one thing well, it proves that even as a household name, Panda and his boys haven’t lost their knack for creating otherworldly art. Where their Williamsburg, Brooklyn peers who critically peaked in 2009 have mostly traded their eccentricities for festival paychecks, every 2010s AnCo-affiliated project has left me wishing they would be more pop. In retrospect it almost feels as if Animal Collective wrote MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION as a way to guarantee that they would pop off with a commercial audience so that they would have the attention of millions, instead of thousands of fans, when the group quickly reverted to the experimental music that locked them into playing 600-capacity clubs.
While the instrumentals on BUOYS are pretty damn good, where Lennox’s vocals were once shrouded in reverb, they are now masked beneath a layer of palpable ennui. When I review albums by people older than 35 who have kids, I generally try to blame their lackluster content on their need to put food on the table, but Panda Bear is the man behind “My Girls,” the greatest ode to fatherhood released this millenium. Here, comfort is the driving force behind the unanimated emotional ambition of BUOYS. Noah Lennox lives in Portugal. He has a family that he presumably loves. God only knows how much he makes every time he sings a weird ass song for a sobbing crowd of Pitchfork-adoring ex-stoner bros. Lennox isn’t a kid from Baltimore copping to the influence of psychedelic drugs on his band’s music. He’s not struggling to pay rent in New York while crafting the sonic rococo that is FEELS. Noah Lennox is 40 years old and he makes enough money off of music to sustain an artist visa in Lisbon and provide four walls and adobe slats for his girls. We probably won’t get another Panda Bear song like “Comfy In Nautica” because Lennox doesn’t have to affirm himself by putting poetry over a THIN RED LINE sample. Looking at the life he was able to build for himself by creating art is definitely affirmation enough, and we should be happy and inspired by his success, even if the lyrics on his last few records aren’t going to bring tears of sun-drenched joy to our eyes.
Last year, Nick Offerman starred in a movie called HEARTS BEAT LOUD. Instead of playing a whiskey-chugging tough guy, he played a whiskey-chugging Greenpoint dad who owns a record store. His cool, city kid daughter is going off to college. His shop, full of first-pressing Sonic Youth and Tom Waits vinyls, is closing. In the final scenes, Offerman’s character recommends the album MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION to his romantic interest, a woman named Leslie, played by Toni Collette. In the last scene, sitting at the bar where Offerman now bartends in the wake of his emporium’s closure, she mentions listening to the song “My Girls” and the two wax poetic about the magic of the song. Animal Collective isn’t the band that’s going to leave you disoriented and dumbfounded, but they’re still soundtracking the lives of people who learned to love them at their prime, which is more than most experimental artists can claim. BUOYS is an alright record by a man who’s been behind more than his share of masterpieces. Panda Bear can rest on his laurels, and it’s okay. He soundtracked the most intimate moments of one blog-conscious generation. He doesn’t have to do that for two.