Douglas Martin briefly beat-boxed in Department of Eagles.
Listening to Grizzly Bear inspires adjectives usually foreign to critically-acclaimed, avant-garde New York City bands: pristine, nuanced, sophisticated. The Big Apple is supposed to be dirtier than everywhere else. Its artists are supposed to be darker, weirder, more damaged, more openly self-destructive. The Velvet Underground. Sonic Youth. Even LCD Soundsystem had enough edge left to be considered “dance-punk.” Grizzly Bear are none of these things.
Sure, they’re plenty arty, but in a different way than the other highly-touted Brooklyn bands. TV on the Radio has Dave Sitek’s industrial- and shoegaze-indebted guitars and Tunde Adebimpe’s scuffed-up, forgotten 80’s soul legend croon. Yeah Yeah Yeahs have Nick Zinner’s downtown art-punk guitars and Jesus and Mary Chain hair. Dirty Projectors have whatever the fuck inspired this short film. You can play Grizzly Bear on your way to the mountains. You can play Grizzly Bear for your mom without the fear of getting things thrown at you.
Somehow over the past few years, the band has gained an impressive quasi-mainstream following while keeping their art-gallery-darling cool intact. From its inception as an Ed Droste-helmed solo project with Horn of Plenty, Grizzly Bear expanded in both personnel and scope, fine-tuning their meticulous, quietly innovative arrangements and eventually becoming the greatest American band ever named after a homosexual subculture. They’re one of those bands whose success was greeted with fans being simultaneously unsurprised and incredulous. You expected them to become famous because their tunes were easy to digest, but were skeptical because bands as creative and as good as they are never become famous enough to pack 3,000-seat venues.
But here we are, living in a world where Jay-Z praises Grizzly Bear’s brilliance and Shields comes highly anticipated. And it started with two of the most drastic left turns the band has taken in their career. The thundering “Sleeping Ute” explodes for half the song and the ashes float through a chilling coda with Daniel Rossen’s deft finger-picking and wounded, anxious voice. “Yet Again” is even more surprising, with Rossen’s slightly corrosive guitar tones and Ed Droste’s vocals at their most soulful making way for a brutal, catastrophic meltdown at the end of the song, all broken bricks falling from the sky and tables being overturned. They are certainly the most visceral songs Grizzly Bear has recorded since “Deep Sea Diver,” the first track of their first album. But if you’ve been paying attention to the press run-up to Shields’ release, people would have you believe Grizzly Bear sounds like Mission of Burma now. Grizzly Bear do not sound like Mission of Burma, nor will they ever. The day that happens is the day I stop writing about rock music and dedicate my life to following Skrillex in a Grateful Dead bus.
Grizzly Bear just sounds like Grizzly Bear here. That’s not a knock on the band, as I’ve made it known how good they are at what they do. Shields finds the band taking big chances on their singles and subtly (“subtlety” being the band’s vanguard trait) adjusting their sound by not polishing it up so much. There are eerie noise interludes throughout, “Adelma” is a minute-long ambient float born out of the cacophony that ends “Speak in Rounds.” Noisy interludes pop up all over the place, but they never overtake the quality of the songcraft.
Speaking of the songcraft, Shields is just on another level. In interviews leading up to the album, Droste talked about how he recorded his vocals in fewer takes and felt liberated listening to missed notes and cracks in his voice. This effect makes him sound more soulful than he’s been in the past, less of a choirboy and more a sensitive leading man delivering a heartsick monologue. It makes “The Hunt” a heartbreaking moment on the record. It makes songs like the climactic penultimate track “Half-Gate” the emotional climax of the album.
The wildly overlooked rhythm section– Chrises Bear and Taylor– carries the album with a great deal of dexterity, delivering a bouncy poly-rhythm to “What’s Wrong” and exploding about 2/3 of the way through. The sleepy-but-strutting “Gun-Shy” is bolstered greatly with the Chrises’ sense of swagger. And “A Simple Answer” sounds more muscular than any Grizzly Bear song yet.
Obviously, Grizzly Bear is about the pushing, pulling, and coming together of their lead songwriters since everybody loves a competition. But the truth is that on this album, the band is a unit that only reared its head in glimpses in Veckatimest. Droste and Rossen sing on each other’s songs, sometimes both singing on the same song. It seems like with this album, they’ve finally tapped into what they’d like to further accomplish as a band with all personnel in clearly defined songwriting roles.
Sometime around the release of Veckatimest, friend of the site, Barry Schwartz dismissed Grizzly Bear’s music as “sculpture.” There’s many people who think sculpture is boring, and when you think about it, the process sounds boring as hell. The clink, clink, clinking of metal to stone, the long hours trying to form a formless pile of mass into a Olympic god or Cal Ripken Jr. or even a garden gnome. The endless hours before you get something that even remotely resembles a human body part. It sounds boring.
But that’s all moot when you consider the finished product, a work of art crafted by someone for hundreds of hours, turning out looking like something of immense beauty, something majestic, something intimidating in its mass. Grizzly Bear does something like that. They chip away at their songs and fashion them into something that sounds like what you would describe a masterpiece. Maybe it is sculpture. But more than any work of art, sculptures are the ones that often leave us awestruck.