When Brian Wilson recorded his magnum opus, SMiLE, he conceived it as a teenage symphony to God. However, the only moment that seems to have resulted from the idea is the opening track, “Our Prayer/Glee.” With Tomboy, the fourth solo album by Animal Collective member Noah Lennox A.K.A. Panda Bear, this concept is taken and used to its full extent. Drawing inspiration equally from Brian Wilson, hip-hop, roots rock, and Gregorian Chant music, Tomboy is a triumph both in terms of scope and originality. Although experimental, what ultimately makes this album so successful is its consistent reliance on incredible vocal melodies augmented by dense harmonies.
The album’s melancholic tone at first seems like an odd departure from Lennox’s previous album, the inviting and ever-so-sunny Person Pitch. However, those who have listened to his earlier work on the album Young Prayer will find the tone of this album a natural fit. Recorded in his childhood home while his father was dying from cancer, Young Prayer is a barebones exercise in stripping music down to its emotional center. While not as emotionally draining as Young Prayer, a sense of loss and sadness pervades the music on Tomboy, undermining the deceptively positive lyrics. Backed by a simple beat, a guitar modulated beyond recognition, and swirling vocal samples, the album’s opener, “You Can Count On Me,” simply repeats the line, “Know you can count on me,” likely directed to his children, before promising to protect them. However, the music and vocal harmonies betray the sense of comfort offered in the lyrics, instead focusing the attention on what it is that he might need to protect them from.
Avey Tare, Lennox’s band-mate in Animal Collective, was quoted by the BBC as saying, “Music should be more than just something to stomp to - it should be interactive. For us it’s not always about writing a good song - we wanna play with your ears in terms of colours and space with sound.” Those sentiments are definitely present in Tomboy. One of the most interesting moments on the album is the song “Surfer’s Hymn.” The vocals are only backed by an epileptic synthesizer, drum track, and a sound of the beach. However, the vocal melody happens to be one of the best by any artist the last ten years. The fact that Lennox chose to set such a compelling melody against such sparse, even distracting music is part of what makes him such a fascinating musician.
Tomboy is not afraid to indulge in sweet-as-saccharine songs however. The album’s most immediate track, “Last Night At The Jetty,” contains some of the most gorgeous harmonies in recent memory set to a guitar warped to sound like an organ, and a beat that doesn’t so much as pound as stumbles. The unsteady beat emphasizes the self-doubt contained in the lyrics. The song opens with the question, “Dreams that I once had/Did I have them anyways?” When the question, “Didn’t you have a good time?” is answered by repeated declaration, “I know I had a good time,” it seems as if he is trying to convince himself, rather than the audience. This subtle use of lyrics and music in order to evoke complex emotions is something that is rarely seen or even expected in popular music today.
In recent interviews, Lennox has cited the immediacy of bands like The White Stripes as a major influence on this album. At first glance, that seems like a confusing thing to say, but most of the tracks on Tomboy can be reduced to simple beats, keyboards, vocals, and heavily effected guitars. If one were to remove all the effects and speed up a track like “Slow Motion” it probably wouldn’t sound that different than a song by Nirvana or Pavement.
The religious quality of Tomboy is hard to ignore. The entire album almost sounds as if it is a warmth radiating from inside an ancient cathedral, and nowhere is this more apparent than on the album’s magnificent closer, “Benefica.” The song’s gorgeous harmonies seem at once new and familiar, something that Lennox is particularly good at. If the rest of the album is a conflict between childhood and growing up, “Benefica” is the final resolution.
Contradiction is really what lies at the heart of the album. Lennox has said that he chose the name Tomboy because the word itself represented a contradiction. By placing such straightforward vocals against such experimental music, writing in the style of guitar rock but warping the guitar beyond recognition, and putting lyrics with such optimism into such melancholic arrangements, Tomboy is an incredibly unique meditation on the transformation from childhood to adulthood. It looks on the past fondly, even if from rose-colored glasses, while also showing an acceptance of new responsibilities, and a willingness to let go.
Tracks to Check Out - Slow Motion, Last Night At The Jetty, Benefica