Perhaps more than any other act in recent memory, Panda Bear and his Animal Collective bros spawned countless imitators, bedroom producers and jigsaw sample-snippers, bands catching and riding that re-imagined pop wave of rhythmic pastiche. The immediate nostalgia embedded in Person Pitch‘s aesthetic allowed it rare accessibility for an album so strange, and that it was driven so deliberately by the personalities of each layer enacted a collaborative feeling that couldn’t help but feel exciting and triumphant. The far-out, drenched vocals, an element of distance, perhaps in time and age or in social settings, being the outsider, became a principal signifier for conjured memory. On Tomboy, the application of heavy reverb and delay feels less about looking back than about looking in.
Here we are met by a Panda Bear taken a turn not only for the darker, but for the more direct. Take the guitars on the title track, they pummel ahead rather than swirl in place. The song moves by force rather than by gradually unfurling its textures. It’s a more rock ‘n roll gesture, for sure, and maybe more conventional, but the play of the lyrics “what’s my life like?” practically demand it. We’re not just playing on the beach, we’re kicking to stay above water. “Take my life so high!” How? We’re not sure, and that’s part of the drama here. The influences on Panda Bear, Noah Lennox, have been detailed by the the artist himself as including, among others, Nirvana and J Dilla. Like the work of the former, the personal vibe of the album’s lyrics, as they take shape, and the nature of their propulsion indicate a soul in peril, one that needs sometimes in desperation and oftentimes without light by which to find what’s needed. The King of Beats shows up early on, in the head-bobber “Slow Motion,” which chimes, bumps, snaps and sometimes zaps along. Tomboy takes a step back and focuses its rhythmic energy on supporting its melodies, which are thankfully mostly very strong, especially on “Surfer’s Hymn.” Lennox’s voice rises over an arpeggio of bells and (appropriately) a sample of crashing waves, before (forgive me) breaking into a foot-stomping surf-rock dance that wouldn’t sound so out of place next to Weezer classic “Surf Wax America.” “How do I know it’s time?” Panda begs, and we feel with him on the cusp of something big. In true Animal Collective tension-and-release, tease-the-listener fashion, however, this is the album’s sunniest moment.
The album is divided into two distinct halves, the first a blur of previously-released singles opening the door, waving us in, and the second, beginning with the overture-esque “Drone,” a dive of considerably greater investment into the yearning and personal isolation that define the tone of the whole experience. “Last Night At The Jetty” leads into this flip side with a moment of self-reflection and doubt that at once breaks Lennox’s self-imposed push forward and takes that unavoidable glance backwards, a gesture indicating an artist’s measurement against himself. This tender self-awareness could go either way. Some will find it endearing, a human moment encapsulated in lyric, and some will undoubtedly find it a speed bump in Tomboy’s momentum, an issue that arises as the “new” tracks, intimate as they may be, reveal themselves. He sings, “Didn’t we have a good time?” which seems to point to the opening track of Person Pitch’s “Comfy in Nautica:” “Try to have a good time.” The acknowledgement is double-edged, but serves also to usher us into darker territory.
“Drone” is simple, but feels important, and is reminiscent of a movement of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (no, not that one) from The Who’s Tommy, and signals the end of a road of sorts, and the beginning of a sort of unravelling for Tomboy. While “Alsatian Darn” is some of Panda Bear’s strongest songwriting and most challenging melody, a tremolo’d firepit folk tune that erupts into shadowdancers on surrounding trees, handclaps and feeling larger than ourselves, the ten minutes that follow feel too easy to lose oneself in. The inclusion of “Scheherazade” and “Friendship Bracelet” hit the breaks right when I want Tomboy to floor it, and while these tracks are growers in their own right, lovely in the way “Cemeteries” was on fellow Animal Collective lifer Avey Tare’s album from last year, they feel disruptive and separate from the environment established by “Surfer’s Hymn” and “Altsatian Darn.” The penultimate “Afterburner” feels therefore aptly titled, but we have to wonder what we’re being given that extra boost towards. The track itself seems more like a Sonic Boom track that features our hero than a creation of his own. Sure, it rules, and I swear I hear sounds from Primal Scream’s immortal “Come Together” in there, but the sudden change in direction feels like it doesn’t have anything behind it. “You Can Count On Me” and “Benefica” bookend the album nicely. The whole thing sort of pops into existence, an idea and a testament, and instead of resolving, wistfully swoons into silence, all a dream. But maybe that’s what Lennox was going for.