ONCE UPON a time, January was the graveyard shift in the album release schedule, a time when contractual obligations, works deemed not good enough, and albums labels were not interested in, were unleashed into the post-Christmas commercial wasteland.
In recent years that has changed. January now often produces as much potentially interesting new releases as most other months, with this year in particular being rather conspicuous. Belle and Sebastian, Father John Misty, and Natale Prass’ albums are all exciting interest, but chief among this crop though is Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper.
Despite the album title’s clear intimations of mortality and its lyrical themes of fatherhood and being ‘head of the family’, this is a record where listeners can lose themselves in the sound - and there is much for the ear to discover in these densly fascinating songs - and be heedless of the lyrics.
The ‘voice as instrument’ approach is best heard on ‘Boys Latin’ - a highlight among many on the album - where the bubbling, throbbing, synth bass line is the bedrock for Panda Bear (aka Noah Lennox ) to unleash an inspired wordless chant that dominates the song. Lyrics eventually arrive, but they are rendered almost as a one man choir echoing inside a cathedral - the words themselves are not important, but the melody, mood, texture, and subtle variances between Lennox’s voices are - and they work wonderfully.
Although the album is resolutely and unapologetically electronica, like with his cohorts in Animal Collective, Lennox is able to find diversity within his chosen genre and sometimes the lyrics matter very much. ‘Tropic Of Cancer’ is led by a swirling harp motif backed by wind-like synth atmospherics, over which Lennox muses on his late father, crooning delicately: “When you can’t get back/you won’t come back/you can’t come back to it.” It is sung beautifully and the chorus has the kind of melodic rush and swoop that recalls Scott Walker in his 1960s heyday.
‘Mr Noah’ is the album’s pop moment, but of a distinctly left-field kind, starting with dog howls and atonal electric noise, before settling into a strident rhythm and a vocal that slips, slides, and struts in a highly catchy manner, without ever sacrificing eccentricity.
It may only be January but Lennox has delivered a superb album, one likely to be featured on those Album Of The Year polls in 12 months time.