The term “collective” implies a united front, a melding of minds and ideas. Under vaguely zoological personas, four boys from Baltimore joined forces at the turn millennium to explore primal, child-like sounds within a tableaux of experimental, off-kilter pop. And, as Animal Collective, they effectively changed the framework of thinking around “indie music” — the ways in which it was created, how it sounded, and what it could be. In the midst of their meteoric rise, Noah Lennox, otherwise known as Panda Bear, released his solo album opus, Person Pitch.
Its significance is there in the title: This is not a group effort but the sound of a singular human, a paring down of the grandiose, densely textured soundscapes that marked his full band’s output. In asserting Lennox’s specific sensibilities and influences, Person Pitch had the effect of unraveling Animal Collective’s mysterious aura and seemingly impenetrable sonic palette. A decade later, Person Pitch looks less like incidental creative overflow bookended by two of the band’s best releases and more like a dividing line in which the individual interests of the “collective” began to splinter it.
Lennox had just moved to Portugal and started a family. This put physical distance between him and the group, and creatively, it gave the album a distinct motif — sunny, carefree, slightly exotic but not wholly unfamiliar. The songs are built from samples that feel close to being recognizable but are assembled so deftly as to preclude identification; what’s left is a general sense of Beach Boys-era pop, vague Motown vibes, even hints of the Pure Moods soundtrack, reprocessed and collaged together. Found sounds like firecrackers, handclaps, and clattering trains stitch everything together, providing a palpable forward momentum and giving the impression that the record is meant to be consumed in one sitting, like a mixtape. Lennox had released nearly all of the material in the form of singles prior to putting out the record proper, making Person Pitch a sort of compilation spanning 2005 to 2007; this factored into the thematic sense of familiarity and comfort.
Person Pitch was not Lennox’s first solo effort; in 1999, as Animal Collective was congealing, he released a weirdly minimal self-titled LP, and the dream-like, acoustic Young Prayer followed in 2004. It’s the samples that truly set Person Pitch apart; Lennox even sampled his own vocals and guitar playing, sometimes from bits of recordings he’d already made. In that way, the record was akin to his side-project with Scott Mou, whom he’d worked with at now-shuttered New York City record store Other Music. As Jane, the duo put out three releases, all of which feature long, continuous tracks heavy with atmosphere (similar to the extended mixes of “Bros” or “Good Girl/Carrots”). But in 2017, Person Pitch was certainly the most accessible and pop-forward music Lennox had ever created; he went so far as to describe it as “sugary” in an interview with Dusted Magazine and noted that his attraction to the saccharine and sentimental was one he didn’t always share with his bandmates in Animal Collective.
Panda Bear’s affinity for pop was cropping up in Animal Collective releases, of course. Strawberry Jam arrived roughly six months after Person Pitch, and the band was already road-testing material that would wind up on Merriweather Post Pavilion; all three have the same giddy worldview and warm, wonky tones. No doubt the practice of putting those albums together helped Lennox achieve the cohesion of Person Pitch, but there’s a generosity there that isn’t present on, say, Avey Tare’s release with then-wife Kria Brekkan, Pullhair Rubeye, which came out in 2007 and infuriated fans due to the fact that each of its tracks were presented in reverse. Panda Bear and Avey Tare (whose real name is Dave Portner) — Animal Collective’s only constant members — were quite literally heading in different directions. Portner stretched backward toward experimentation and insularity; Lennox took a deep dive into Phil Spector and Brian Wilson fandom, even going so far as to list over a hundred musicians of inspiration and influence in Person Pitch’s liner notes. These included everyone from Wu-Tang Clan to Kylie Minogue to Can.
Though Merriweather fully embraced the sample-heavy approach Lennox had taken with Person Pitch, the tides turned in the oncoming spate of releases. Mired in their newly expanded fanbase’s expectations as well as a sort of ennui surrounding their pop explorations, Animal Collective’s next album, Centipede Hz, arrived in 2012, a mélange of distortion and disconnect. Likewise, Panda Bear’s 2011 Person Pitch follow-up Tomboy featured fewer samples in favor of rhythmic, performance-based guitar, but its overall affect was lulling and reverent rather than the aggressive chaos of Centipede Hz. The band had returned to Baltimore to write Centipede — as they were now living in four separate locations — and it reflects the jarring nature of that experience. Tomboy, by comparison, still evokes the coastal ease of Lisbon, but in a less whimsical manner than Person Pitch; Lennox was invested in a subtlety that was basically obliterated by the turbulence of Centipede Hz.
Though the pendulum would swing back toward Lennox’s pop-loving constructions on Animal Collective’s most recent LP, Painting With, the band’s output seems touched now by a certain decay, albeit one the group embraces. Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks side project (which released an LP in 2014) as well as Portner’s 2010 solo album Down There centered on horror films and dark, personal meditations on illness and divorce respectively. And Lennox’s latest release, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, examines deepening responsibilities, mortality, and creating a legacy. Never in Lennox’s output, either solo or with Animal Collective, would he reach the same zenith of youthful idealism heard on Person Pitch; perhaps that’s reflective of a certain maturity, of the simple passage of time.
What Person Pitch did at the time of its release was to push Animal Collective (and many of the musicians who wanted to emulate their work in the wake of the band’s success) toward a poppier, more accessible sound, one achieved, in this case, through exuberant use of samples. As time marches on, the timelessness Person Pitch once represented now feels tethered to a specific, kaleidoscopic moment in Lennox’s discography, a flash that illuminated his greatest influence on the band. But with its comforting buoyancy, Person Pitch wears the nostalgia for that golden era best of all.