No two Panda Bear albums have ever truly sounded alike.
No two Panda Bear albums have ever truly sounded alike, but the stylistic turn exhibited on Buoys is nonetheless the sharpest deviation of his career to date. Gone are the Brian Wilson-esque shimmering pop symphonies and psychedelic dub of prior records. In their stead is a slower, aqueous sound that sounds vaguely like Noah Lennox’s take on his Animal Collective bandmates’ Tangerine Reef, recorded without him as he worked on this record. Opening track and lead single “Dolphin” lays out the album’s tone succinctly: underneath samples of drops plunking into standing water, a distant guitar loop circles around a gentle beat. Lennox sings his lyrics in a distended warble, crooning as if underwater about a feeling of physical and emotional distance.
It’s a strange, surprisingly challenging track, made all the more confounding in how heavily the track, and by extension the rest of the album, pulls from hip-hop for its sonic tricks. At first blush, it’s difficult to parse some of the more explicit nods to rap production in this decidedly half-speed, washed-out sound. Yet hip-hop has always exerted an influence on Lennox’s work, if abstractly. Person Pitch, with its myriad samples from genre-spanning songs and archival sounds, resembled nothing less than an indie pop version of Paul’s Boutique, demonstrating the originality possible with collage. Panda Bear’s last album, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, made this connection more apparent, blending classic dub techniques with a heavier emphasis on beats. Buoys sublimates this influence as if dissolving it in the album’s watery texture, threading each composition with a subtle application of modern production tics.
This is especially evident in Lennox’s use of Auto-Tune. Lennox boasts one of the most pitch-perfect voices in contemporary indie music (listen to his expert vocal arpeggios on “Mr. Noah”), and he does not use Auto-Tune here to aid his voice but to complicate it, pushing him out of notes and into tone clusters. On “Cranked,” his otherwise mid-range croon is pitched regularly into sudden baritone ululations by a tweak of a knob. “I Know I Don’t Know” twists an already thin, reaching vocal into something so brittle that it communicates all the vulnerability in the lyrics of boyish dreaming. When Lennox sings “Gonna get ours/ Anything goes,” the deliberately reedy tone undercuts youthful boasts with mature reservation.
Other aspects are less prominent. “Cranked” reworks the sharp bounce of trap’s laser effects into a rubbery squelch that is distended with reverb, while “I Know I Don’t Know” uses skittering beats that fold back in on themselves, the sound of crab crawling around on the sea floor before retreating into its shell. “Buoys” erupts with a hiss of noise not unlike the ‘90s hip-hop blast that ushered in Björk’s “Army of Me,” only to sink back down into the lilting pattern of a chiming acoustic guitar, creating a conflict between Lennox’s clear-eyed resolution to better himself and lingering self-doubt. Fascinatingly, Panda Bear uses techniques that usually lend themselves to the braggadocio of rap to communicate bedroom-pop anxiety and idyllic daydreaming, approaching sounds from counterintuitive angles to produce an entirely new context for them.
This is a bold experiment in songwriting, though admittedly it can sometimes be difficult to tell this given how homogenous much of the album sounds. Panda Bear records often revolve around a core stylistic touchstone amid their generic cross-pollination, but the songs on Buoys can sometimes bleed into each other with little to distinguish them from each other besides a slight tweak of bright synthesizer clusters or acoustic riff. The first half of the album in particular takes several listens to lose the sense that it keeps promising to crank up into the next gear but never does. “Master,” a gorgeous song that uses Auto-Tune to keep pitching Lennox’s voice into trembling falsetto, nearly gets lost amid a mid-album stretch where the songs share too many of the same touches to be distinct.
If the album is the least immediately rewarding of Panda Bear’s solo career, it nonetheless reveals copious merits upon repeat engagement. The final trio of tracks particularly demonstrates the sophistication of Lennox’s compositional talents. “Inner Monologue” hones the nebulous nature of the album’s music into a sharp point of crystal-clear guitar and lyrics that, despite Lennox’s terse fragments of words, paint a vivid picture of epiphany. Album highlight “Crescendo” adds keyboard cascades and booming percussive beats against a chasm of dub space that pulls each note and syllable into a receding echo. Closer “Home Free” double-tracks Lennox’s guitar until it slightly resembles one of those country/hip-hop crossover songs, albeit with an ear for sonic variety over tawdry chart exploitation. As the left and right channels bounce the riff back and forth slightly out of step to create a stuttering beat, Lennox’s voice sits dead center being buffeted by both sides, creating a tugging effect reflected in the digital warps applied to his vocals. It’s a fitting way to end an album that reveals unexpected depths to its pared-down sonic elements, and it hints at areas within this new sound that Panda Bear still has to explore.