Since its conception, Grizzly Bear has a seen a tremendous evolution. The eerie, lo-fi bedroom musings of leading man Ed Droste were appropriated for their debut Horn of Plenty with the aid of drummer Christopher Bear. Grizzly Bear’s second release, Yellow House, saw an unexpected and exponential sonic expansion with the admission of multi-instrumentalists Daniel Rossen and Chris Taylor. With the ante upped and a challenge to write music as a whole band, the four-piece song architectural firm built the skyscraping Veckatimest. To keep a long[er] story short, in 2009 Grizzly Bear could have boasted (if they weren’t such humble guys) to be one of the only “do-no-wrongs” to emerge in the 2000s music scene, an era of numerous successful debuts and subsequent failures to launch.
Until a few weeks ago Grizzly Bear’s fourth album, Shields, had fans tweaking with ached anticipation. Would the new album potentially risk indie rock credibility and become a “sell-out” record dominated by poppy fare? After all, “Two Weeks” found its way onto college bar soundtracks a few years ago sandwiched in between MGMT’s “Electric Feel” and Animal Collective’s “My Girls.” Would Shields be too conservative and latch onto the successful cross-over aesthetic of Veckatimest and its predecessor Yellow House? Or would it be too out-there, ultimately turning off their recent converts?
Shields streamed on NPR’s website last week for an early listen. One thing became apparent very early on–the new album isn’t challenging per se, but it certainly doesn’t have a one-spin snare like “Two Weeks.” This, however, should not discourage the listener. Shields is an album that builds on itself with multiple listens. At first it might seem like an average rock record, but a few listens through and one will notice innumerable production intricacies: Chris Taylor’s sprinkled effects, Bear’s clever percussion, warm but subtle instrumentation, frequent and seamless musical segues. For a breakthrough, throw on a pair of headphones to check out the gorgeous stereo mixing.
As per usual, Grizzly Bear has an incredible introductory track. Shields begins with “Sleeping Ute” which sounds like a not-so-distant cousin of Jeff Buckley’s “So Real.” Bear’s quirky time signature and Rossen’s dainty little riffs and finger-picking are at the forefront with jarring percussion at every turn. “Sleeping Ute” forecasts much of what is to come on the album: angelic guitar work, fluid major to minor shifts and rich, sprawling soundscapes.
“Speak in Rounds” begins with a chugging bass and aped drum before taking off with a skittered Feelies-esque strum, cruising into a powerful, echoed chorus and fiery horn-blared outtro. Initially, the Alt Rock conventionality of “Yet Again” feels like a deliberate beg for mainstream radio play (complete with twinkling a-ha synth), but the track is delightfully twisted with a frightfully aggressive guitar solo and punctuating drums.
“What’s Wrong” has an effect not unlike the melancholic gramophone filter of Yellow House‘s “Marla.” The result is a talkie soundtrack for a speakeasy bar fight. “What’s Wrong” is also tracked ironically right after “A Simple Question” which may account for some of the emotional unrest at Shields‘ core. The penultimate track, “Half Gate,” contains some of the most impressive lyrics on an overall well-written album. “A quiet picture drawn each day before it ends / To remind me once again / Why I’m even here,” is an applicable, albeit somber, image for each of the songs on the album.
The weaker tracks on Shields (read “out-shined by their neighbors”) call up third-party vocal stylings. The pretty but plodding “The Hunt” echoes Hail to the Theif-era Thom Yorke and the jaunty “A Simple Answer” sounds similar to Win Butler’s delivery on early Arcade Fire. Thom Yorke makes sense as Grizzly Bear toured with Radiohead not too long ago and one could do worse than echoing Win Butler, but truth be told, Grizzly Bear sound their best when they sound like Grizzly Bear: smooth yet complex, multi-layered harmonies.
Akin to their awesome intros, Grizzly Bear is also wont to have epic finales (think of the wondrous monument “Colorado” at the end of Yellow House). “Sun in Your Eyes” is a testament to Grizzly Bear’s ability to build a song from a simple piano chord progression and snare-tick to an absolutely grandiose ballad. “So bright / So long / I’m never coming back,”the lyrics backed by the staccato piano boom with all the power of an Icarus death-cry; but unlike Icarus, Grizzly Bear’s wings don’t melt away and they instead soar off like a shrinking spec into a distant, blinding light.
Shields isn’t indie rock perfection, but it’s the closest that anyone has gotten in some time. It is well-orchestrated, well-executed and well, worthy of your attention.
Grizzly Bear – Shields tracklist:
- “Sleeping Ute”
- “Speak in Rounds”
- “Yet Again”
- “The Hunt”
- “A Simple Answer”
- “What’s Wrong”
- “Half Gate”
- “Sun in Your Eyes”