In retrospect, Animal Collective’s 2016 record Painting With sparked quite a change in the group’s output. For a band that is known for their sonic experimentation and left-field approach to psychedelic pop and rock, Painting With was a shockingly one-dimensional effort that garnered lukewarm reception from critics and fans. It was the last thing that an Animal Collective record should be: safe.
While no member has explicitly said so, it is apparent that the reception to the record caused a complete 180 in their output, including both collaborative efforts and solo releases. Projects such as Meeting of the Waters, Deakin’s Sleep Cycle and Avey Tare’s Eucalyptus saw members returning to the more acoustic, stripped-back aesthetic of earlier Animal Collective records in a more mature, meditative fashion. Each of these records stand as some of the best material to come from any Animal Collective member in years. Even the band’s 2018 album Tangerine Reef, which was released to rather low fanfare, saw the band releasing their most abstract record in more than a decade. Everything after Painting With has made for one of the most interesting, unpredictable eras in the group’s discography.
It is this fact that makes Panda Bear’s Buoys such a disappointment. Of all of the members of Animal Collective, Panda Bear (formerly known as Noah Lennox) has had the greatest success with his solo material; 2007’s Person Pitch stands as one of the most critically acclaimed records of the 2000s, and each record following it (Tomboy, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper) has received its own significant amount of praise.
“Dolphin” is Panda Bear’s worst single to date
All of the aspects of Buoys that cause its downfall can be found on the lead single and opener, “Dolphin.” How this song was chosen to be the world’s first taste of the record is a mystery; the bare instrumentation, questionable vocals from Lennox and lacking songwriting makes for one of the limpest, most underwhelming songs in the Panda Bear discography. The only thing of note is the constant water drip sound effect that sounds like it was dragged straight from a sample pack into the instrumental, completely untampered with. It does not mesh with the layered acoustic guitars at all and is a completely unnecessary aspect of the song.
The fact that this song flounders does not bode well for the other eight tracks, as they all seem to copy the same formula: multi-layered acoustic guitars fused with electronic elements and Lennox’s heavily-filtered, auto-tuned vocals. There are other pieces of instrumentation in some tracks, but the mixing would not have the listener believe so, as it’s those three sounds that are always front and center. This combination has its ups and downs when it comes to execution, but moreso the latter. “Token” is one of the few songs on Buoys where everything works to make a decent track with a pretty exhilarating build-up on the mid-song transition. But even the best cut is derailed by this record’s Achilles’ heel: the vocals.
Vocals devoid of humanity, variety and enjoyability
Lennox is not new to using effects on his vocals. In fact, it’s one of the main calling cards for a Panda Bear project. However, the now-incessant use of auto-tune is the root of many dire issues on Buoys. It sucks all of the humanity out of Lennox’s voice; it makes it nearly impossible to differentiate many songs from each other. The only emotions that Lennox’s ever evoked on Buoys were boredom and annoyance. “Inner Monologue,” which had the potential to be a major highlight on the record and an eerie mood shift, is ruined by the atrocious vocal effects put on Lennox’s voice. I would say that the material on Buoys would benefit from an unplugged, completely acoustic version of this album, but that would insinuate that the melodies underneath all of the effects are worth salvaging. Sadly, for the most part, they really aren’t.
The only aspect of Buoys that is similar to previous Panda Bear records is the cryptic lyrics. Lennox has never been the type of lyricist to make the deeper meaning behind his songs obvious, and that is as true as ever on this new record. To find the core message of many of these songs, you are going to have to dig through confusing imagery and depend on the vibes that the lyrics as a whole give off rather than the words themselves. For listeners who enjoy analyzing and coming up with their own interpretations of abstract lyrics, Buoys will likely prove to be quite a worthy challenge. But for others, next to nothing will be gained from diving deeper into the lyrics.
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