At this point in his career, Noah Lennox could release an album of sampled panda mating sounds, and it’s a fair bet that we’d still be fawning over each leaked track and waiting in breathless anticipation for the completed work. Ever since the title track from Tomboy made its vinyl and digital debuts last July, it seems that just about any indie hipster website or blog with a live stream has posted no fewer than two of the album’s four(!) singles, as well as a smattering of demo-caliber Tomboy outtakes. In the process, Lennox – pseudonym, Panda Bear – has amassed a bedazzled level of critical adoration that few, except perhaps Sufjan Stevens in his post-Illinois era, could comprehend. In all fairness though, the pedestal atop which we find Lennox is not unwarranted; solo effort Person Pitch (one of 2007’s best, if not the past decade’s) championed the Animal Collective member as this generation’s Brian Wilson, albeit one with a more intuitive understanding of sampling and less of an obsession with Southern California. As a victory lap, Animal Collective’s hypnotic Merriweather Post Pavilion sat near the acme of every 2009 year-end list.
Beach Boys comparisons be damned, no one in contemporary music is making music like Noah Lennox; his psychedelic soundscapes manage the unfathomable feat of sounding insular yet sprawling, primitive yet erudite, and nostalgic yet clairvoyant. Four years might be considered a long wait for the follow up to Person Pitch, but with Tomboy, it’s clear that the time was well spent; the record doesn’t just live up to the hype so much as it enshrouds it in a glassy fog of blissed out atmosphere. Promotion becomes sort of irrelevant anyhow when the music is this breaktaking.
Lennox has made it clear in recent Tomboy commentaries that the album is something of a departure from the euphoric and iridescent shimmer of Person Pitch; samples were traded for sequencers, synthesizers for guitars. Additionally, a majority of the record was conceived in a dimly lit basement studio in Lennox’s adopted hometown of Lisbon, Portugal, where the dank and Cimmerian environs only encouraged an aesthetic shift toward the melancholy. Yet Panda Bear’s obvious love affair with reverb and delay effects will always lend even the most crestfallen moments a sense of joy, and on Tomboy, this translates into a record that lacks the innocence of previous efforts but enhances a greater sense of nostalgia and self-awareness.
Regardless of the aforementioned changes in songwriting, this is unquestionably the work of Noah Lennox – from the multi-layered vocal harmonies and burbling textures to the cavernous atmospheres and earworm melodies, Tomboy has Panda Bear’s signature sound all over it.
Leadoff track “You Can Count on Me” sets a mollifying tone as Panda Bear’s voice sings the song’s namesake repeatedly over seismic drums and heavily processed guitar chords, as if to placate the myriad fans that waited years for the successor to Person Pitch. The texture is incredibly opaque given the liberal application of echo, and yet Panda Bear has never sounded more lucid. The title track then disturbs the peace with a clamorous combination of delay-enhanced guitar, incessant drumming, and minor-key dissonance. There are words sung throughout, but as is often the case with Lennox, the lyrics are unintelligible; the human voice is just another instrument in his sonic palette.
It’s not until we arrive at “Surfer’s Hymn” that any major deviation in mood occurs. Buoyed by ping-pong electronics and a frenzied mallet percussion riff à la Dan Deacon, the track is the first to evoke the naïve and jovial attitude of older Panda Bear material. To further enhance the aquatic imagery, Lennox opens and closes the track with the tranquil sounds of waves crashing on the shore. The carefree elation of “Surfer’s Hymn” then gives way to “Last Night at the Jetty” – a song whose infectious melodies and astral presentation are bolstered by lyrics like, “Dream that we once had / did we have them anyway?”
The album’s latter half is a more varied affair. “Drone” is true to its name, a collage of percolating synths and Lennox’s voice floating through the ether. “Alsatian Darn” is Tomboy’s most anxious cut, with camouflaged guitar chords careening into electronic squiggles, multi-tracked vocals, and thunderous hand clap percussion. By contrast, “Scheherazade” sounds like it’s on the verge of defeat, as eerie piano chords and Panda Bear’s gauzy tenor create a sepulchral ambience. Though there’s not a bum track to be found, Tomboy’s finest moment comes in the form of closing number “Benfica.” It could be said that it’s just more of what came before, but Lennox’s instinctive relationship with reverb has never paid bigger dividends than it does here, where spiraling layers of keyboard and harmonized vocals coalesce into what might be the most sublime song Panda Bear has ever written. The complete absence of any drums and bass only adds to the transcendental experience.
While it will inevitably be argued as to whether or not Tomboy is really a work of startling originality or perhaps just a long lost companion to Björk’s Vespertine, it’s hard to deny positing that we’ve got one of the best albums of 2011 finally in our hands.