I can hear Noah Lennox experiencing the same gradual transition when I listen to Person Pitch. Lennox’s best-known, most beloved album as Panda Bear captures the brief instant where the exuberance of youth and the pressures of adulthood reach a stalemate in your brain, giving you a second to breathe. It’s a space where you can remember what it meant to feel carefree and innocent before embracing the new expectations and fears that come with getting older. Person Pitch is that space’s radiant soundtrack, and it’ll remain relevant and useful as long as there are young people in the world trying to figure out their next step.
When you hear Lennox’s music, you don’t immediately think about it in autobiographical terms. His lovely voice — a honeyed tenor that’s earned him untold comparisons to Brian Wilson — is often put to work delivering melodies that are wordless or nearly unintelligible. His discography is peppered with notable turns of phrase, but they’re overwhelmed in number by remarkable hooks and textures that scrape out a little space in your ear. It takes some effort to get to the bottom of his music, but those that do so earn the chance to watch him grow up in real time.
Lennox first made an impact as a solo musician with 2004’s Young Prayer, his second studio album. (A self-titled debut came and went in 1999.) Released just a few months after his band Animal Collective broke through with the hushed, mystical Sung Tongs, Lennox made Young Prayer as a gift for his dying father; the album was recorded in the room where his father would eventually pass away. “With Young Prayer, I wanted to tell him that he had taught me really well,” Lennox told the critic Simon Reynolds in 2005. “I wanted to be like, ‘It’s been really good hanging out and learning from you, you’ve been a really good man and set a good example.’” It’s hard to pick out many distinct words on Young Prayer, but you can hear Lennox’s love and pain in every keening wail and looped, blurry chant.
By the time he was ready to make another album on his own, Lennox had endured a series of earth-shaking life changes. After wrapping up Animal Collective’s 2003 European tour with a festival date in Lisbon, Lennox had the sort of rambling, spontaneous experience reserved for the young and unattached. He watched microhouse legend Luomo play a club set, a treat given his intense interest in minimal electronic music, and he fell into hanging out with a bunch of Portuguese strangers who felt like family. “This guy comes walking up to me, and... the way he was talking to me, I felt like I must know him, but I couldn’t remember who he was,” said Lennox to PopMatters in 2007. “So I just got in the car with this guy and all his friends.”
One of those friends was the woman who would become his wife, fashion designer Fernanda Pereira. Within a year, he’d packed a bag and moved to Portugal for good; within two, he was married and fathering a daughter. During that same time period, Lennox weathered the death of his father and released Young Prayer. He also recorded two more albums as part of Animal Collective, the aforementioned Sung Tongs and 2005’s Feels, that combined to raise the band’s profile by several orders of magnitude.
It was a period of rapid, scary transformation, and it shaped the songs that would make up Person Pitch accordingly. The oldest songs on the album are built around mantras, cycling phrases that have sedative properties. Released as a double-sided single in September 2005, “I’m Not” and “Comfy in Nautica” approach the concept from different angles. The former is the last gasp of an expecting father, and you can hear Lennox trying to calm himself down before his life changes forever: “I’m not ready for it / But then ever I could be?” As he sings the words “I’m not” over and over again, his anxiety — and yours — starts to melt away. “Comfy in Nautica” is a sunnier, sweeter reminder to focus on joy. “Coolness is having courage / courage to do what’s right / Try to remember always / just to have a good time.”
The idea of coolness runs through Person Pitch like a vein, but that doesn’t mean it’s something Lennox is interested in pursuing. The album rejects trends and fleeting pleasures; it encourages its listeners to think critically about what they need to be happy, and to pursue those needs no matter the social cost. “Bros” is the first of Person Pitch’s breathtaking centerpieces, and Lennox spends almost all of its 12 minutes pleading for understanding and acceptance: “I’m not trying to forget you / I just like to be alone / Come and give me the space I need / And you may find that we’re all right.”
This isn’t the kind of thing you hear from an introverted college freshman being dragged to the bar against their will. It’s a plainly spoken request from a man who knows himself well and wants to protect his mental health. He puts it into different words after the song breaks into its ecstatic second half, trying to get the message across: “I know myself / and I know what I want to do.” A few songs later, Lennox makes a direct appeal to the kind of enthusiasts who picked up a copy of Person Pitch based on its Pitchfork rating alone: “Get your head out from those mags / And websites that try to shape your style / Take a risk just for yourself and wade into the deep end of the ocean.” It’s a line he repeats over a dubby rhythm and a twinkling, mobile-like melody, the sort of elements you’d only think to marry after plenty of exploratory listening.
Again, these aren’t easy sentiments to express. They ring with intangible, hard-earned wisdom, the kind that flowers to life when you realize that familial obligation and responsibility should be celebrated rather than feared. And while that wisdom is still easy to find in Lennox’s more recent work, his music has become stark and shadowy. The quality that defines his post-Person Pitch music is loneliness: you can hear it in the blown-out nostalgia of Tomboy highlight “Last Night at the Jetty,” the breadwinner anxiety of “Alsatian Darn,” the aquatic gurgle of “Friendship Bracelet.” (A telling line from the latter: “And without notice / I’ve become someone who’s out of reach / I’m as much to blame.”) One of the best songs on 2015’s Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper is aptly titled “Lonely Wanderer.”
Whenever Person Pitch threatens to tip over into darkness, Lennox chooses light instead. The best example is “Take Pills,” a song about anti-depressants that sounds like the theme song for the best amusement park you’ve never visited. The initial scene is rather bleak: in the wake of his father’s death, Lennox’s mother has been virtually deserted by her adult children. She’s “ripping off her hands, one flake at a time.” It sounds like a tragedy in the making until a jaunty guitar line bubbles up from underneath the arrangement. “Take one day at a time / Everything else you can leave behind,” chants Lennox. “I don’t want for us to take pills anymore / Not that it’s bad.” (This is the kind of joy we’re dealing with: he won’t judge the people in his life who still need pharmaceuticals to get by.) The song ends with a glowing, repeated affirmation: “Stronger if we don’t need ‘em!”
This fundamental optimism in the face of adulthood’s trials and tribulations is the foundation of Person Pitch’s legacy. Critics and listeners occasionally make the mistake of describing Person Pitch as “nostalgic,” a word that appears when discussing the album’s library of dusty samples. In order for something to be truly nostalgic, it has to communicate a degree of wistfulness that’s practically painful. It’s fair to describe much of the music that emerged in Person Pitch’s wake — including chillwave, the internet joke-turned-viable subgenre that blossomed at the end of the ‘00s — as “nostalgic” because it leans on fear and escapism. All of those melted VCR tape effects and acid-wash synths were serving as cover for musicians who wanted to lose themselves in the past instead of growing up.
Person Pitch isn’t defined by fear, and it’s not crippled by the weight of expectations. It’s progressive, inspirational music. It makes you feel excited about the prospect of the future, even if the future is uncertain and imposing. And while the album draws you in with its musical genius — “classic psych-pop crossed with minimal techno” remains one hell of a one-sentence pitch — it earns a place in your life by reassuring you everything’s going to work out just fine. Put it this way: a time will come when you wake up and realize you’re totally washed, and Person Pitch will be there waiting.