The preamble to the release of Tomboy has been protracted and unusual, with a number of delays and red herrings. For devoted followers, the final release may seem like something of an anti-climax, given that much of this material has already appeared in slightly different form across a range of singles and teasers. For critical admirers of Noah Lennox’s work, both under the Panda Bear moniker and as part of the rightly admired and popular Animal Collective, it may be anti-climactic for slightly different reasons.
Tomboy is by no means a bad album but it never quite hits the ecstatic heights of Merriweather Post Pavilion. Lennox’s sound collage techniques are also not quite as bold and refreshing as they were on the outstanding Person Pitch. Instead, it’s his voice that very much takes centre stage. On Person Pitch, Lennox often subsumed his multi-tracked vocals within the overall architecture of each piece, sometimes rendering lyrics indecipherable or unecessary. On Tomboy it feels as if his vocals are defining and leading pretty much every track, making everything dangerously saccharine. A little more space and textural variation might have enhanced the overall experience. Tomboy once again sees Lennox creating a distinctive, hypnotic sound-world – but it sometimes feels too much like a world from which there is a strong desire to escape.
Many of Lennox’s trademarks are fully intact here – some having been amplified to almost overwhelming extremes. His tendency towards saccharine melodies is indulged, and repetition (long an effective fundamental element of his writing) is a recurring device. The synaesthetic quality of Animal Collective’s work, perhaps their most defining feature, continues to inform Lennox’s work, and much of Tomboy is purposefully dense and disorientating. Perhaps even more significantly, the thematic and conceptual nostalgia for childhood and innocence is probably more in evidence here than in any Lennox work since the early Animal Collective releases.
Of course, familiarity should not necessarily breed contempt, and there is much to enjoy on Tomboy. Last Night At The Jetty is one of Lennox’s most direct and appealing songs, with its elevating melody very much placed in the foreground. Scheherezade, pitched somewhere between melancholy and creepiness, at least provides some contrast. Friendship Bracelet is the one song here with a real sense of shape and narrative and it is refreshing that it is much more melodically obtuse.
Yet elsewhere, there is a nagging sense that Tomboy presents a glossier, slightly more conventional version of the Panda Bear sound. It’s certainly more song-based than Person Pitch, but with lyrics that are every bit as indecipherable. Slow Motion sounds like an Animal Collective track with much of the characteristic weirdness replaced by a vaguely hip-hop influenced beat. The sheer insistence of some of these tracks can become exhausting. There’s a lot of four-to-the-floor kick drum, but little of Person Pitch’s fusion with the world of dance music. The pounding Afterburner simply feels like sensory overload, with little attention to detail. There’s nothing as simple, elegant and affecting as Ponytail.
Comparing Tomboy and Person Pitch may be an unfair way of holding Lennox to account, especially so early into his solo career. There’s little doubt he can be musically inventive – it’s just that Tomboy not only lacks Animal Collective’s recent experiments with rhythm and time, but also lacks the brilliantly designed balance and blend of Person Pitch. Although Lennox has gradually been asserting himself as Animal Collective’s primary creative voice, it may be the case that the stranger, more angular approach of Avey Tare might be a more useful foil for Lennox’s excesses than many have acknowledged.