Despite his longstanding participation and affiliation with the jam band concern of the 21st century, it is the stuff of Noah Lennox’s solo career that is more likely these days to end up on the year-end lists. Conventional wisdom is that Animal Collective haven’t put out a good album since 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion (I disagree—Painting With is a slept-on synth house classic and “On Delay” slaps), but Panda Bear has been the one locking in those BNMs and playing to the same crowds of the same size as any of his old band.
“Dolphin” is his first wide-release single since 2015 and suggests that the record it will accompany, next February’s Buoys, will be both more of the same (good, well-received, solid shelf life on Sirius XMU) and also entirely different than the increasing punches of maximal fuzz that has shaped the last decade of his career. The plonking sound of a raindrop replaces guitar peddle walls and an acoustic guitar, instead, strums low in the mix, like on a Shawn Mendes song. The nautical preoccupations also bring to mind the latest Animal Collective effort, the failed Tangerine Reef, which was the band’s first record not to feature Lennox in any capacity.
“Dolphin” suggests what was missing. A clear voice, holding the room with grace. Stereogum’s Chris DeVille calls it “the most minimalist Panda Bear song since “Young Prayer,” a designation that isn’t quite right because the song harkens even further into the past, closer in style and sound to Sung Tungs, an early Animal Collective record whose songs Lennox has been revisiting lately with Avey Tare, I can imagine him writing this songs on the same guitar. But Lennox is older now, louder, ruminative of how these years have passed, how much bitter cold wind. The song is warm where the early stuff was cold and it is nice that we will now have this to hold on to as winter comes.
Pop songs are all about being smart on your feet now, hustling and blowing past. We say thank you and then we say next. Panda Bear appears still and looks around. “A clown among the thieves,” he crowns himself in song’s most poignant moment. In the music video by Crash Override, a dolphin floats in a frozen vaporwave memory, gyrating like a .GIF.
Panda Bear’s Buoys will be out on Feb 8th via Domino.