Grizzly Bear is a band that has spent its entire career pushing against the boundaries of possibility within its own inherently limited medium of popular song. From the project’s modest beginnings as Ed Droste’s lo-fi home recording project, through Yellow House’s psych-folk experimentations and culminating with Veckatimest’s ornately detailed indie-pop, Grizzly Bear’s defining characteristic throughout has been a hunger for perfection. As more and more of their indie rocking peers drifted into the swirling bloops and bleeps of programmed electronic music, Grizzly Bear remained committed to organic instrumentation, achieving their instantly recognizable sound through the harmonic complexities of detuned guitars and multilayered voices, accentuated by intricate yet understated rhythms and a fluid, nonlinear approach to the structural arrangement of these elements. Each member plays a critical role in the cultivation of this sound with Droste and Daniel Rossen trading off on lead vocals, guitars and keys while drummer Chris Bear and multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor breathe life and energy into the band’s baroque compositions, assembling rhythmic foundations that are both understated and deceptively complex.
If there’s a demonstrable critique to be leveled at the band’s work thus far, it’s that their high minded aspiration of creating pop music as fine art has at times sacrificed emotional immediacy for a clinical level of technical precision and a meticulously wrought aesthetic complexity. Even the ubiquitous “Two Weeks”, with its sensuous melodies and timeless song-craft evocations, glows with a sheen so perfectly polished that the song, along with the rest of Veckatimest, can feel something like the experience of owning a piece of furniture that is so finely crafted and pristinely varnished that you are afraid to actually use it.
But there has always been a cathartic energy lurking just beneath the ostentatious surface of Grizzly Bear’s music. You could hear it from the very beginning as “Deep Sea Diver” lurched from anxious acoustic downstrokes into its screeching climax of guitar distortion and tumultuous cymbals and snares. Or even in the calculated simplicity of “Knife”, as its sparse and skeletal instrumental arrangement opened up space for the haunting vocal melody to softly unfurl and reveal itself.
With their latest album, Shields, Grizzly Bear seems to have made a conscious choice to seek out and foreground such moments of emotional honesty, and they have done so without sacrificing their unique and adventurous approach to their craft. It is an effect that is achieved largely through processes of fragmentation and isolation whereby the individual elements of the band’s compositional technique have been delineated, deconstructed and allowed the room to breathe. There are less of the trademark vocal harmonies with Droste or Rossen each often singing on their own and echoing off of each others’ voices as though to reinforce the albums’ overarching themes of loneliness and solitude. And musically, many of these songs are built from straight forward rock based chord progressions that hinge upon the most basic interplay of guitars, piano, bass and drums.
Given the steady ascendance of the band in terms of critical and popular acclaim, there has been some reasonable speculation as to whether this will be the album that pushes them further over the edge, from indie darlings into full fledged stadium filling stardom. And the lead single “Yet Again”, with its waves of trembling guitar chords, driving rhythmic fortifications and Droste’s honey-toned vocals that sparkle and shine throughout, seems to have emerged from the same mold as the easily digestible epics of My Morning Jacket or Coldplay. That is until the song’s melodic structure dissolves into an all encompassing current of pure white noise, held aloft by the cavernous rumblings of drums and bass that threaten to unravel at any moment into sonic chaos. This song’s strange metamorphosis serves as an answer to the question of whether Grizzly Bear would sacrifice their previously defining eccentricity for the temptations of watered down universality. It’s a clear statement that if they are going to fill stadiums, win Grammys and show up in even more TV shows and advertisements than they already have, they will be doing it on their own terms.
In this way, they are taking their lead from former tour-mates and early admirers Radiohead, who perhaps more than any other band in recent memory has managed to balance commercial success with creative freedom and integrity. And it’s a comparison that holds water throughout the entirety of Shields as the band approaches a range of popular rock music reference points through the lens of their unique aesthetic vision and commitment to challenging their listeners.
There are the nods to the classics, such as “A Simple Answer”, which plays like a 21st century update of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band all the way down to its nihilistic refrain of “No wrong or right / Just do whatever you like”. And there are moments of plaintive introspection like “The Hunt”, where the cracks that emerge in Droste’s slow churning vocal melody reveal a nakedly human vulnerability that was often missing from the immaculate overtures of Veckatimest. The nonchalant grandeur of “Yet Again” along with the sultry, swaying rhythms of “Gun-Shy” and the infectious nervous energy of “Speak In Rounds” will serve as quick fixes for the same melodic pop fiends who devoured “Two Weeks” and “Knife”. However, the rewards here are much more subtle and these songs that are best enjoyed within the overall emotional and aesthetic arc of the album, rather than as stand alone singles built to lure in a wider listenership.
While Shields may mark a transition for the band in terms of the immediate emotional impact of their music, it is clear that they have not in any way abandoned their expansive approach to melody and song structure. “Sleeping Ute” opens the album with Rossen’s intricately woven, chiming and fluttering guitar patterns and a spiraling 3/4 meter that allows Bear and Taylor to trace wandering orbits around the song’s ever shifting center in a dramatic ebb and flow of thunderous drum rolls, careening cymbals and variegated melodic bass lines. Then three-quarters of the way in, the tumultuous rhythms recede to reveal a gentle melodic breeze of finger plucked guitar strings and words that conjure up fleeting moments of connection severed nearly as soon as they appear: “Those figures through the leaves / And that light through the smoke / Those countless empty days / Made me dizzy when I woke / And I live to see you face / And I hate to see you go / But I know no other way / Than straight on out the door.”
The album’s spectacular finale is “Sun In Your Eyes” which builds from a few plodding piano notes and a weary, aching voice spinning a tale of downtrodden spirits: “From the look on your face / You set out on this path / Never to arrive / By the look on your face / The burden’s on your back / And the sun is in your eyes.” But the song climaxes into a towering wall of brightly burning organs, droning guitars and a brilliant drum pattern that saturates the song’s basic rhythmic scaffolding with layers of mystery and depth. “Sun In Your Eyes” is equal parts cerebral calculation and visceral release, and it is a fitting end to an album that unveils deeper levels of emotional impact and aesthetic dimension for a band that continues to challenge and captivate in ways that are entirely their own.