For a famously chill guy known for bemoaning the importance of material things, Noah Lennox has allowed some unusually demanding promotional materials. “We encourage listening to the highest-quality audio system you have at your disposal,” goes the request from Domino Records, instructions that will not appear on Spotify, YouTube, or anywhere else most people will likely encounter Panda Bear’s new album Buoys. It speaks to an atypical passive-aggressiveness nowhere to be found on his previous records of wavy sampledelia. Particularly if you’re under age 30, and have mostly experienced Panda Bear both on- and off-record hunched over a battery of MPCs filled with somersaulting harmonies and percussion, Buoys is the most superficially exciting thing he could make in 2019.
For one thing, the album strips back the endless filters and reverb that typified his most recent work, to leave little more than Lennox and a guitar—a callback to Young Prayer, an old-head favorite from the brief but crucial period when Animal Collective could conceivably be called freak-folk, rather than “noise,” and before the festival-friendly electronic act they’ve been since 2007’s game-changing dyad of Strawberry Jam and Person Pitch. The minimalism of Young Prayer exuded the same herbal essence of Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs, but the tones of Buoys are as brittle and brash as the distorted howling of Here Comes the Indian or the synths of Strawberry Jam.
Buoys’ dominant sound—and sometimes just about its only one—is an acoustic treated with a metallic aftertaste, like the tone of a factory delay preset from a budget multi-effects processor. In interviews, Lennox and his Person Pitch collaborator Rusty Santos, who returned to produce Buoys, have emphasized their focus on the low end. But you’re almost better off not knowing that. If one follows their listening instructions, the sub-bass provides a hackles-raising ASMR experience more akin to the Haxan Cloak than Rae Sremmurd, whose woozy rap records are supposedly one of the primary influences here. How the aquatic sound effects of “Dolphin” or cowboy strumming of “Cranked” derive from, say, “Up Like Trump” or “Black Beatles” is anyone’s guess, though touches of AutoTune and crackling treble at least gesture towards contemporary hip-hop. And for anyone without proper subwoofers, Buoys is a weirdly stressful experience, leaving you to wonder where the bass is, or if you’re somehow not listening correctly.
The water torture of gimmicky drip-drop percussion on “Crescendo” and “Dolphin” come through on any set of speakers, however, and the same goes for Lennox’s lyrics. Even if his words were intended to be as important as the production of Person Pitch or Tomboy, it’s possible to glean those albums’ emotional impact strictly from their sounds. The minimalism of Buoys leaves typical Panda-isms exposed as lysergic fluff: “like a slap on a jelly ass,” “as a cat up a tree, so spry,” “one more whip of a cheeky slap, one more dip in the natural sap.”
Even at its most somber and ruminative, there’s an exploratory joy to Lennox’s music often attributed to his home city of Lisbon, a sort of wish fulfillment for Americans who imagine life there moves at a slower, more reflective pace. The finest melodies here, on the title track and “Token,” have the rejuvenative effect of a vitamin B12 shot. But they feel stuck in place, toggling back and forth in Lennox’s typically symmetrical way, waiting for a crest in the arrangement that never comes. As much as Panda Bear albums promise feels, they thrill with ideas, and the bigger issue is that the album’s entire sonic thesis—setting the most stereotypically “pure” sounds imaginable (voice and acoustic guitar) alongside the kind of bass frequencies that can only be produced through painstaking studio manipulation—runs its course after about 10 minutes. The relatively trim Buoys winds up feeling as minor as 2018’s A Day With the Homies EP, despite being twice as long and bearing far higher expectations.
Lennox has said that a primary goal for Buoys was to make it “familiar to a young person’s ears.” Fortunately for him, a lot of those young ears were trained on Panda Bear. If the 10-year anniversary of Merriweather Post Pavilion proved anything, Animal Collective’s dubious recent output has not diminished their status as a formative gateway band, and while that project changed the culture, the solo masterwork Person Pitch shifted the creative process of indie rock in ways still being felt today. Buoys is unmistakably a Panda Bear album. It just looks more flattering in the context of 2019—with his status as an icon of the genre already in place—than it does measured up against the work that got him there.