Derek Dashiell weighs up the fifth solo effort from Baltimore experimentalist Panda Bear
Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
13 January 2015
There are two songs from Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper that I want to bring up first: ‘Shadow Of The Colossus’ and ‘Lonely Wanderer.’ Shadow Of The Colossus was a PlayStation 2 game following Wander in his quest to save a girl. For most of the game, the only characters are Wander’s horse Agro and the 16 Colossi he must fight. It’s now as ubiquitous in gaming as in art – there are few games so important, awe-inspiring, or heart wrenching. It’s a treatise on loss and, without giving anything away, a question about the worth of sacrifice. And Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper is nowhere near as good.
Yet, the comparison still applies. There’s something touching in the fact that Panda Bear identifies with Wander. Both Animal Collective and its co-founder Panda Bear are lauded for their music, but not often entirely understood. How could they be? Their discography is a bad acid trip: you’re on your own, trying to tussle with these big ideas. It’s stunningly solitary.
This album’s big idea is death. Panda Bear said he wanted to make talking about death palatable, in his warped, psycho-pop way. The title uses the word “meets”; however, the album art spells out, with distressingly neon bars, ‘Panda Bear VS the Grim Reaper’. ‘Versus’, not ‘meets’. This is a challenge. But what is being challenged?
If this is Panda Bear’s bid for immortality, he’s going to need another attempt. The album moves away from some of the directness (which is NOT to say coherency) of prior solo work, but is debatably more poppy. Truth be told, I don’t know what to say here. This is an Animal Collective member, so you’re going to get melodies written by the Beach Boys on shrooms. You’re going to get organic terror mixed with mechanised horror to create something ethereal and gorgeous. With anything Animal Collective-related, if you find value in their work beyond ‘My Girls,’ everything’s worth a listen, and this is no exception – Panda Bear’s solo work is distinctive in its open, cyclical nature. Album opener ‘Sequential Circuits’ describes well the sound of the whole album. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend any track on here as a starting point for a new listener, but as limited an Animal Collective fan as I am, I’m glad I took this trip. And I imagine I’ll be coming back to ‘Lonely Wanderer’ again before the day’s out.
I don’t think Panda Bear is exactly challenging death to a game of chess with these songs though. I think the challenge is more of a debate – more philosophical, as Panda Bear is wont to be. On ‘Shadow Of The Colossus,’ you get the spectre of something slightly off that pervades the game, in 18 seconds. On ‘Lonely Wanderer,’ he dissects questions: “What have you done/ Have you done/ Have you, he said,” the question changing meaning with each subtracted word. At the end, he asks, “Was it worthwhile?” which, aside from perfectly summarizing the central theme of the video game, makes you realize that this isn’t asking the Grim Reaper. We are our own Grim Reaper. At the end, what have you done? Have you done it? Was it worthwhile?
Then some sickly psycho-pop frolic begins, because we may be dealing with death here, but Panda Bear’s got something to say first.
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