Sungenre Album of the Month – February 2019
Buoys is the sixth album from shapeshifting experimental artist Panda Bear, the moniker of Noah Lennox, a co-founding member of influential Baltimore outfit Animal Collective. It’s the first Panda Bear release since last year’s vinyl-only, self-mixed and self-produced EP A Day With the Homies, and the follow-up to his critically-acclaimed 2015 full-length, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. This album also arrives ten years after the breakthrough success of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009). Buoys was recorded in Lennox’s adopted hometown of Lisbon, Portugal with frequent collaborator Rusty Santos (Ariel Pink, TV On The Radio) credited with co-production and co-mixing duties.
Driven in large part by his desire to never recreate previous sonic palettes, Lennox makes his intentions very clear from the outset with a bold step into new territory via opening track and lead single “Dolphin”. Simple, bright, strummed acoustic guitar chords and silky smooth vocal melodies are given ample space to shine with a minimalistic arrangement driven rather oddly by water drop samples and hi-hat. It’s beautifully zen-like in its anatomy, production and delivery and can be enjoyed in an array of locations such as lounging at home or travelling to work on the train – provided, of course, you have a good pair of headphones. The album’s press release states in no uncertain terms that listeners should approach this album as audiophiles, with care for accurate reproduction of the deep bottom-end contained within the album’s nine tracks. “Gonna switch off the screen, unblinded” Lennox sings at one stage, reinforcing the album’s contemporary feel whilst highlighting the sheer number of zombie-like faces glued to glowing screens on your Monday morning commute.
The slapback delay is cranked up on the appropriately titled “Cranked”. Displaying Lennox’s exceptional songwriting and performance capabilities, the track contains a propulsive beat driven by acoustic guitar along with staggered entrances by distorted hi-hats and kick. The water drop samples found in the opener are here replaced by zapping synths, punctuating ever so subtle yet exquisite vocal harmonies.
Next comes “Token”, another single, featuring acoustic guitar arpeggios, clever and curious vocal melodies, builds, booming bass and subtle layers which unfurl themselves with repeat listens. “A slap on a jelly ass, (why) don’t you go and get into the building, slide into a warm robe, let me get you something, hot to brave the coldest cold” Lennox sings confidently. Of note is the optimistic sound of these two singles, both in E flat major, delivered in a style which could arguably pass for a more experimental Vampire Weekend on acid.
“I Know I Don’t Know” continues with the heavily delay-effected acoustic guitar and similar vocal melody construction. Distorted whistling introduces a welcome new element to the mix, but overall the track doesn’t soar to the same heights as the ones before it. “Master” similarly isn’t as strong, although it does succeed in shaking up the formula. Here, Lennox utilises steady, alternating fifths on piano to underscore the vocal direction – slinking masterfully through various keys on its way to its final destination.
Title track “Buoys” shakes things up even further, with sweeping white noise synths heralding the arrival of a song perhaps calling to mind a contemporary, experimental version of the Proclaimers’ hit “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” (1988). Next, “Inner Monologue” provides one of the album’s finest highlights. Over female sobbing in the song’s intro, warm, close mic’d, broken acoustic guitar chords recall the rich, warm tones of Radiohead’s In Rainbows (2007), before bursting into an almost flamenco-style syncopated feel over a steady beat, accompanied by some simply outstanding vocal harmonies. “Look up from the screen, my god, ran away, don’t run away,” Lennox sings, bridging the record’s first and second halves thematically.
Penultimate track “Crescendo” opens with some dissonant retro synth sounds which soon dissipate to uncover stream-of-consciousness lyrics and some water sound effects, again casting listeners’ minds back to the album’s opening. Final track “Home Free” has a similar feel to “Cranked”. “End of the line, it’s in the bank, like losing a friend,” Lennox sings, perhaps self-referentially about the completion of this record and the fact his next effort will likely sound completely different.
While staying true to his ethos of never repeating oneself musically, Panda Bear has created an almost paradoxically rich and complex yet minimalistic sonic palette which he uses to full effect on this innovative, masterful and highly enjoyable release. Many of the effects across Buoys’ nine tracks may strike listeners as bizarre or eccentric at first. But there’s an indelible beauty contained within, and the surface need only be scratched a little to find it.