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Panda Bear - Buoys Music Album Reviews

Noah Lennox finds solace in solitude on his fourth solo album as Panda Bear, stripping the instrumentation down to just a handful of sounds to create an unusually unified listen.

When working with Animal Collective, the exuberant Noah Lennox surrenders to the spirit of collaboration. But when he’s working solo as Panda Bear, his music honors the state of aloneness. That word describes how his music as Panda Bear is created (typically written, played, and sung by Lennox), performed (Panda Bear shows usually feature Lennox by himself, standing before a mixing board and microphone, with a guitar around his neck), and experienced. You have to think twice before putting on a Panda Bear record when hanging out with friends—the music is just too interior, and Lennox’s work has always been best suited for headphones and solo contemplation.

The new Panda Bear album, Buoys, suggests that aloneness can be represented in a number of different ways. The last three Panda Bear full-lengths—2007’s Person Pitch, 2011’s Tomboy, and 2015’s Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper—were light and airy. Their queasy weightlessness brought to mind dreams, memories, and imagination, sometimes shaded with fear and darkness, and the billowy reverb created an illusion of an enclosure filled with activity, even if it was being observed from afar. Lennox’s voice suggested physical spaces—cathedrals, for the grandest of songs, perhaps a bathroom for ones that felt more closed-in. It seemed to exist somewhere in the physical world.

Buoys takes a different approach, stripping the instrumentation almost to nothing and forgoing the overt warmth of the lingering note. In these songs, which have a stark, brittle quality that feels very “digital,” there’s barely anything moving. The primary instrument on Buoys is acoustic guitar, which is not a new thing for Lennox. In the middle of the last decade, Lennox used acoustic guitars on records like Sung Tongs and Young Prayer like an extension of his body, creating a drone effect that sounded more like breathing. But the acoustic guitar on Buoys doesn’t sound played, exactly—it’s more a device for sending ripples of chords across the stereo field at regular intervals, or else short, declarative chops of rhythm. It sounds disembodied. Just a handful of sounds make up the production for the album (along with guitar, there are assorted gurgles and laser sounds, a few drum breaks, some deep bass throbs, and not much else), which makes for an unusually unified listen.

From the opening “Dolphin,” Lennox resides in new territory. He has never sung like this before—his voice is a true close-mic’d croon and it even has a bit of vibrato. As he soars over a lightly strummed acoustic guitar and a percussion arrangement that subs a drop of water for a snare, the sense of effort is palpable, the laying of each piece in its place. That sense of exertion extends to Lennox’s voice as he tests a chest-heavy bass register, stretches single syllables for a couple of bars at a time, and offers careful articulation of each consonant where reverb-enabled smearing was once the norm.

The songs here unfold at an even, mid-tempo pace. Some, like “Cranked,” are disarming in their sparseness. “Token” is the rare song that opens up on the chorus, with Lennox folding his voice into harmony as he sings of longing and need. “Inner Monologue,” which is, along with “Dolphin,” one of the record’s big highlights, conveys a tense, nervous atmosphere. In the background, you can hear what sounds like someone sobbing, and the droning synth line that snakes through the track makes it feel ominous, even charged with violence. But the drama makes it an outlier. Most of the songs move forward step-by-step and unfold almost mathematically.

Throughout the record, Lennox offers the simple affirmations and pledges of loyalty (“I would always be there when you need it” on “Dolphin,” “Guy on the ropes (yes you can)/Don’t give up hopes (start again)” on “Cranked”), a motif common in his music. But these homilies are more complicated in this setting. He describes wanting to be a good person and remaining hopeful, and inside the perfect-from-now-on desire is the suggestion that what’s happening at the present may not be so wonderful. That’s where a certain amount of the sadness in Lennox’s music comes from—what’s happening now might be too much to talk about, so let’s talk about what might one day come.

Buoys is a sad and wistful album, though in a non-specific way. Part of it is the inner pep-talk of lyrics that imagines a future that may never come. There’s an ache in being stuck between who you want to be and who you actually are. And part of it is the sound, which feels closed off from the world, but in a carefully considered and ultimately beguiling way. This sort of privacy can seem alienating, cordoned-off, suffocating, solipsistic. But those who connect with it hear something else, something deeply comforting: It’s the sound of one person considering his place in the world, beamed to a person who, in turn, considers their own.

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