Panda Bear’s music has always held roots in the past. From the earliest years of his output, Noah Lennox’s work, both under this solo moniker and within Animal Collective, has never been shy about wearing its inspirations on its sleeve, be it his prominent usage of King Tubby samples in his dub-influenced tracks across the decades or the direct Beach Boys subversion of Sung Tongs cut “College.” At his best, Lennox is unmatched at drawing from the old and making it feel confidently modern.
Reset, the latest of Lennox’s releases as Panda Bear, arguably draws from his strengths as a musician perpetually unstuck in time more than any of his earlier records. Curiously enough, the person bringing this element to the forefront is Spacemen 3’s Sonic Boom (aka Pete Kember), previously Lennox’s producer on Tomboy and Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper, taking on an equal role in performance this time around. Kember not only joins Lennox in his usual array of harmonizing vocals and synthesizers, but also offered the germ of Reset’s context—expanding on intros from records of pop’s earliest years as the primary foundation for multiple tracks.
The effect is infectiously immediate from the album’s opening seconds. Even before either Lennox or Kember can be felt on the record, the triumphant acoustic guitar chords of Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven” burst forth. Lennox then emerges with a gleefully soaring vocal part, and the track—the magnificent tone-setter “Gettin’ to the Point”—fully becomes his and Kember’s.
Much of the joy in Reset comes in instances like these where Lennox and Kember wholeheartedly embrace the sounds of the past with a distinctly contemporary approach. The synths across the record often hew toward the duo’s period-specific forebears, notably the bright, space-age pop-esque Yamaha PSS-480 on “Everyday” and “Edge of the Edge.” Slide whistle sound effects litter multiple early tracks, calling to mind the accoutrement populating 1960s albums like Highway 61 Revisited. Even the vocals themselves add to Reset feeling of a piece with its samples, no more present than Kember’s deep bass tones adding doo-wop backing vocals to “Edge of the Edge.”
It’s the discrete differences in Lennox and Kember’s singing that gives Reset an enthralling variety where its concept may otherwise have grown tired fast. Lennox, whose harmonies have so often been compared to Brian Wilson’s, lives up to that reputation more sweetly than ever before on the minimalist midpoint “In My Body,” a spiritual sibling to The Beach Boys’ own “In My Room.” On “Everyday,” Kember’s most prominent leading part, his gravelly register distinguishes the song from its more upbeat peers—more The Trashmen than The Everly Brothers. Some of Reset’s most magical moments come, however, in seeing the trade-offs between these two: Lennox’s highest reaches on “Edge of the Edge” counterpointed by Kember’s lower vocal scales, or the soft vocals on the chorus of “Go On” giving way to a demanding refrain underscoring the sinister lyrics that surround the track.
This duality is what makes the most striking ironies of Reset’s lyricism land with the greatest impact. “Go On” arrives so early and breezily in the album that its matter-of-fact delivery of “One dude’s dead / and another’s next” wallops jarringly, daring the listener to peer closer into the darker undertones beneath the seemingly sweet exterior. Though the record’s liberal usage of its inspirations and celebration of the camaraderie between its creators reads as cheery on its surface, that underlying morbidity is always in close proximity. “Whirlpool” hinges on recurring images of being pulled “deeper and down,” while the buoyant “Danger” conjures being “caught” in a proverbial “storm” and the yearning to “get back / to that harmony.”
The ride isn’t without a few road bumps—the more subdued energy of the album’s midsection keeps things sedate for perhaps a bit too long, and the oft-simplistically figurative lyrical style renders passages proclaimed to address “cancel culture” as slack where the subject calls for greater nuance. (Notably, “Edge of the Edge”—otherwise a stellar standout on the record—confronts the matter as plainly as “forever at the push of a button.”) There is an inherent limitation in delving into a topic as knotted as this within the confines of pop music, and Reset never quite manages to navigate it fittingly.
But this is a relatively slight stumble in an album that largely recomposes the history of pop, rock and R&B with impeccable finesse. If there were to be a single exemplary track from Reset, it’s the penultimate track, “Livin’ in the After.” Here, Lennox’s vocals revolve around the looping acoustic guitar intro of The Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me,” dwelling on mortality with the linguistic directness (“Searchin’ / But you can’t be sure / But you can’t be sure / So you take a dip / In the deepest end”) that comes in so many classics from the 1950s and ‘60s. Where the track shines brightest is in its chorus, suddenly leaping to the string bridge that brings “Save the Last Dance for Me” to its dramatic climax. Whereas The Drifters only called upon the orchestral once, Lennox and Kember make it the fulcrum that makes each refrain glide with daring impact.
While much of what this songwriting duo have said about this record stresses the new possibilities they found in the intros they sampled and built upon, they also were not afraid to liberally crib from the grandest moments beyond those to help these staples endure. Moments like these elucidate that one of Reset’s opening lines acts as its mission statement, as well as Lennox and Kember’s recognition of the album’s greatest power: “Back to basics / I’m going back to nurse a bud / And let it seed.”
Natalie Marlin is a freelance music and film writer based in Minneapolis who has contributed to sites such as Little White Lies and Bitch Media, and previously wrote as a staff writer at Allston Pudding. She also regularly appears on the Indieheads Podcast. Follow her on Twitter at @NataliesNotInIt.