Grizzly Bear has a knack for making straight up gorgeous songs. Fortunately, the acclaimed foursome aspires to more than penning emotional ballads to play over indie rom-com closing credits and Volkswagen commercials. After a year of relentless touring on 2009’s much-loved Veckatimest, followed by a period of intense soul-searching and a novel experience in the studio, the stellar new album Shields, released on September 18, shows that Grizzly Bear has opted in to being a band for the long haul.
On Shields, the band members share more song-writing responsibilities than in the past, with encouraging results. Lead singers Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen split the crooning almost evenly. Rossen’s tinny, more anguished wail is well-matched to the assault of opener “Sleeping Ute,” which vacillates between syncopated gasps of self-discovery and yawning acceptance. Sung by Droste, “Speak in Rounds” feels like the direct descendant of Veckatimest’s “Southern Point” with hazy, big-bottomed bass notes coercing the track to an uncertain precipice. But the view from the top of the ascent offers little in the way of closure, as the spinning chorus considers “What makes each step/worth the time and regret.”
Similar questions pulse arterially through Shields, and offer a window into the band’s state of mind during time spent apart, pursuing other projects. Since 2009, Chris Taylor has produced music under the moniker CANT, while Rossen, who’s also half of the duo Department of Eagles, released a fully-realized solo EP (Silent Hour / Golden Mile) earlier this year. Reuniting four distinct personalities after marriages, individual successes and other life events, Shields’ songs feel as intimate and unrehearsed as confessions drawn out of a semi-conscious mind. In few places does this therapeutic experiment go awry, thanks to Grizzly Bear’s surefootedness navigating the often weighty subject matter of a “lost” generation. Only a handful of indie bands (e.g. Radiohead, Arcade Fire) are able to elevate such heaviness to such heights of beauty with results this natural and universal. Deep as they are, the Grizzlies’ questions and intentions float amidst the chords like polite, respectful ghosts, never smacking of artifice or scaring themselves up in the spirit of achieving that “epic” sound.
That said, a handful of songs that follow the album’s standout single “Yet Again” do lack a certain punch. “The Hunt” and to a lesser extent “A Simple Answer” pass as incidentally as the view from the backseat of the station wagon on those long “are-we-there-yet?” trips from childhood. By the album’s last third, this is easily forgiven, and much of the credit goes to drummer Chris Bear, whose frank style of playing gives Shields’ quest immediacy, never letting it wander too far from its central contemplation. On the album’s darker moments, such as the oboe-inflected “What’s Wrong,” Bear slides effortlessly into a jazzy, improvisational mode that creates a protracted, almost eerie resonance. And on “Half Gate,” his expert fills line up perfectly with burnished horns and driving guitars, leading the journey to its inevitable end on the seven-minute opus “Sun In Your Eyes.”
With Shields, Ed, Daniel, and the Chrises (Taylor and Bear) have released another penetrating collection of songs that demand active and repeated listening. The album courts its path slowly but surely, teasing its way through darkness to find light.
Tiffany Hairston lives, works, and plays in Washington, DC, where she was born and where she claims she will die at the age of sixty-three-and-a-half. Her prior FP music reviews include albums by Murals, Electric Guest, and Dirty Projectors. She believes your golden years should be almost as tumultuous as your twenties. She spends a lot of time daydreaming, often about what she would put on a playlist for a formerly deaf person and recent recipient of a cochlear implant, hearing music for the very first time.