Grizzly Bear - Shields
By: Red On Black
Grizzly Bear’s fourth album Shields is one to work at and perserver with. On first listens it’s all a bit complex, fussy, unsettling and wayward. There is no Beach Boys style pure pop such as ‘Two Weeks’ to draw you in, or razor sharp indie rock like The Knife to play over and over again.
The band comprising Daniel Rossen, Ed Droste, Chris Taylor and Chris Bear decamped to Texas in an abandoned military base and were fed musically on an eclectic diet of rap and Talk Talk‘s magnificent Laughing Stock. The latter is an album which creeps up on you by revealing more of itself on every listen like a musical striptease and it’s pleasing to report that Shields plays a similar waiting game to the new listener.
The opener ‘Sleeping Ute’ has been round the music blogs as much as Sir Chris Hoy has covered the Olympic velodrome track. It is because of this that what would sound like a strange start now seems so familiar. Its swirling psychedelia with a heavy pop slant for some reason reminds this reviewer of a 10cc song that is about to spontaneously combust. It punches and rages until 3 minutes in it turns into a a flowing Spanish sounding acoustic ballad with a lovely Droste vocal. This album is all about layers and the free flowing ‘Speak In Rounds’ has so much going on in the background that the listener struggles mentally to pick up its different parts. But then it clicks and all of a sudden it’s one of the album’s best tracks.
More pop orientated but by equally demanding are songs such as ‘Yet Again’ where Droste starts off with the big claim ‘Yet again we’re the only ones/no surprise this is often how it’s done‘. This is no idle boast for it’s hard to think of many bands that plough this particular furrow which at its best can be completely compelling. ‘The Hunt’, for example, is a beautiful ballad but its structures are angular and background instrumentation often jarring. Much more straightforward is the excellent ‘A Simple Answer’, which shows that sometimes the more stripped down Grizzly Bear has more to offer than the complex Grizzly Bear.
In this respect quite why the dreary instrumental ‘Adelma’ is present is a mystery but it only last a a minute so a small complaint. It is interesting that their counterparts/rivals the Animal Collective have a song ‘Today’s Supernatural’ on their new album Centipede Hz, which owes a debt to the French pop masters Phoenix, and in the track ‘Gun-shy’ easily the most accessible track on the album Grizzly Bear has performed a matching exercise of dreamy introspection.
The best however is saved to last; firstly with the rolling chamber music of ‘Half Gate’, which has a huge cinematic feel that builds to a big swirling finale and then, finally, nothing else on the album comes close to the sheer perfection that is the last song on Shields – the seven minute plus ‘Sun In Your eyes’. In the same way that ‘Foreground’ provided a suitable climax to Veckatimest this follows the format of a slowly building piano ballad but it is populated with high octane choruses and unusual time signatures that pull it out of shape. By 4.30 minutes it seems to mutate into a different piece of music that soars to a massive climax and reintroduces the hook ‘Stretched out, fallen wide/The light has scorched the same/So bright, so long/I’m never coming back‘ where Droste literally sings his heart out until it gently fades.
Many bands go through album after album and will never come close to this heightened level of musical ecstasy. And whilst there remains a nagging doubt that Grizzly Bears masterpiece is yet to come, the point of Shields is to present an album which is populated by staging posts of sheer sublime beauty but which often requires travel on densely populated harmonic paths and byways to reach this satisfying destination. Should you choose to accept the journey the rewards are rich since Grizzly Bear again prove their impeccable credentials as a fiercely independent band and Shields is one of there most memorable collections.