Album Review: Grizzly Bear – Shields
Grizzly Bear have had to up the ante considerably this time around in order to match expectations following the sonic wizardry of 2009’s Veckatimest. For that album, the Brooklyn four-piece cracked a winning formula of cascading harmonies and subtle guitar melodies, bolstering their chamber-pop aesthetic and bringing them to the eyes and ears of a much larger audience. It’d be hard for even the grumpiest of listeners to deny the perfection of the likes of Two Weeks’s starburst swoon, or the maddeningly addictive While You Wait For The Others.
The question is: where to from here? And it seems that Grizzly Bear themselves have thrown away the map and struck out for new territory. If Veckatimest was the soundtrack for exploring a leafy, sun-dappled island, Shields is a much stormier – and murkier – affair. They haven’t cloaked themselves entirely in shadow, and patches of sunlight still drizzle through their songwriting, but from the off it’s clear that the band have toned down the dreaminess a couple of notches. Sleeping Ute comes crashing into consciousness with gnarled guitar riffs, tumbling drums and Daniel Rossen’s despondent wail of “I can’t help myself”. It’s an instant statement of intent, and one of the most electrifying things they’ve put together yet.
Admittedly, Sleeping Ute marks the farthest the group stray into heavier waters, but the album remains troubled and keyed-up throughout, until the jazzy psychedelic soup of Sun In Your Eyes: an adventurous closer which ends Shields on an explosive note – albeit a tasteful, controlled one. There’s little to be found along the way as instantaneous as the likes of Southern Point‘s freewheeling joie-de-vivre, but though the corners are a little blurrier, the band hasn’t lost its sense of playful charm. Speak In Rounds chugs like a locomotive in the manner of Arcade Fire, and Gun-Shy twinkles with delicate guitar swoops and a surprising synth motif. Elsewhere, Yet Again is arguably the strongest of the entire set, churning from a cloudy, simple opening into wonderfully cacophonous waves of instrumentation. Gilded by Chris Taylor’s tasteful, blurred production and propelled by Christopher Bear’s booming drums, it’s a majestic five-minute odyssey.
Unfortunately, though most of the cuts on here will enchant and surprise, the album is something of an inconsistent listen. It’s not aided by the fact that the vigour of Yet Again is lost almost instantly on The Hunt. A pleasant, cavernous ballad in itself, The Hunt is fine on its own merits, but it goes on to set up a slow descent into the album’s two weakest moments – A Simple Answer and What’s Wrong?. Both meander for far too long, without making nearly enough of an impact to justify their length. Thankfully, the pace picks up once again as the album draws to its sweeping, dramatic close, but it does derail the nicely-building momentum of the first half.
Still, the bulk of the album makes up for this temporary dip in quality, and on this form, Grizzly Bear can retain their title as one of the strongest and most interesting groups working today. While it probably won’t be embraced as universally as Yellow House or Veckatimest, Shields can be regarded as another success for the band. With their horizons now expanded further and their dynamic appeal still intact, it’s exciting to speculate over where they might tread next.
“Come get what’s lost, what’s left before it’s gone.”