Album Review: Panda Bear – Crosswords




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Last year, David Kinney released a book called The Dylanologists that chronicled obsessive fans of Bob Dylan and their myriad attempts at unlocking the mystic truth within their idol’s music. They would obsessively listen to albums, tape any and every show, converse endlessly, and even go through the man’s trash. The closest I’ve seen a fan base come to this sort of obsession is the acolytes worshipping Animal Collective. Though I can’t confirm anyone’s been sifting through Deakin’s garbage cans hoping for scraps of information on the new record, I wouldn’t be surprised. Word had been cycling deep in the base for months about an upcoming companion EP to Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, and fans began scouring demos, bootlegs, and Panda Bear producer/Spacemen 3 founder Sonic Boom’s cryptic, clue-filled posts to the AnCo fan forum.

While Bob Dylan and Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox might not seem to have a ton in common, they do share a sort of spiritual guide aura. Where Dylanologists parse his lyrics for signs of where his Jewish heritage and Christian conversion come and go, the Animal Collective following takes turns at zen koans and ancient truths (the often simplistic, always evocative lyrics do lend themselves to open interpretation) and just digging deep into pagan drug rituals (dude, those grooves!). It helps, too, that Animal Collective has multiple voices and can play multiple roles, lending more to pantheistic traditions. Avey Tare’s mischievous bark and Panda Bear’s haloed vocals play off of each other to build out an entire world. And, true to form, Crosswords, that long-rumored Panda Bear EP, fulfills that spiritual identity to a T: He explores the mundanities of the real world in his angelic voice, giving them a startling beauty and pouring them out in little spiked Dixie cups.

After a reworked, lusher take on Grim Reaper cut “Crosswords”, the first new track of the EP is “No Man’s Land”. Quick-cut tape squiggles reminiscent of Beatles psychedelia pulse in and out of the polyrhythmic groove and chomped synth. It’s one of those Panda Bear tracks that is so stuffed with busy electronic layers that you start to worry you’ll blend into it yourself. But then Lennox is there, ready to guide you through, reaching out a helping hand. “So it’s getting busy living/ Or it’s getting busy dying,” he cries out in his falsetto, a reminder that no matter how cluttered and chaotic life might get, it’ll all wash out in the end. Suddenly, the busy layers don’t sound so busy — they sound downright danceable.

There’s a hippie side to the Animal Collective camp, and “Cosplay” is possibly the most unabashed revelation of that element of Panda Bear’s sound.  “Marijuana makes my day,” he soars after an intro of crunchy, percussive noise and some blissed-out synth. It’s no surprise that one of the dudes behind “We Tigers” is into the green, but it’s never been this explicit. Regardless, the melody is transcendent, and the waves of trippy noise and wordless harmonies are blissful even to this sober listener.

“Shoot for the stars/ Then you’ll only end up lost in space/ I like it more like so,” Panda Bear offers in the third new track of the set, the strutting “Jabberwocky”. The track’s core lopes at a comfortable pace, while the electronic ephemera surrounding it pushes and pulls in intensity and volume, creating a strange, kaleidoscopic feel that suits his empowering, yet spacey lyrics. Also included in the midst of the Grim Reaper material is an altered take on “The Preakness”, a song dating back at least to 2011. However, this new form, all rich chords and pushing percussion, fits into the current era of Panda Bear releases, layered with existential wonder.

As with the Dylanologists, there will be arguments over which version of the re-released tracks is superior, whether the new tracks equal the greatness of the bootlegs, what the true meanings of Panda Bear’s lyrics are, exactly. But, much like the music that inspires them, I’m sure those “arguments” will be full of good vibes. “You got it so good/ So good, so good/ Damn it, so good,” he sings on “Crosswords”. For fans of Panda Bear, it’s hard to argue.

Essential Tracks: “No Man’s Land”, “Cosplay”