Just when you thought the success of previous album Veckatimest, and in particular the ubiquity of lead-off single “Two Weeks,” had changed Grizzly Bear from leftfield nu-folkies to baroque pop darlings, the Brooklyn quartet return with a grittier, more muscular record in Shields which manages to ask new questions of their audience while reassuring them with the comforting sensitivities of the past.
In many ways, Shields is a challenging record and a frustrating one, not because of any disappointments or shattered illusions but because it’s an album made by a band digging deep and casting their net wide for innovative ways to confound expectations. Perhaps the complexity of arrangements and uncomfortable time signatures in songs such as opening track “Sleeping Ute” are part of a concerted effort to wipe clean the memory of 2009 vintage Grizzly Bear as the band who soundtracked the Volkswagen commercial played during the prime-time ad break in Super Bowl XLIV. In a bid to distance themselves from that mainstream breakthrough, Grizzly Bear have constructed a beautiful maze of perplexing songs which hark back to the sweeping landscapes of their 2006 album Yellow House, albeit with a more mature – and let’s be honest louder and crazier – collection of tracks.
By going deep into Shields, one is encouraged to follow the musical twists and turns, an 80’s sounding synth track may entice you into a sudden rock-tinged dead end while a pastoral coda may lead you round a corner to find that you’re right back where you started at a hook-driven intro which sounds like Fleetwood Mac. One can get lost in Shields trying to understand its route and making sense of its map. But instead on panicking, the overwhelming urge is to start again, to work out just what the hell is going on and to search for the record’s soul at the heart of this labyrinth with a perplexed smile on your face. This is an album that wills you to solve its riddle. Yellow House played like an interwoven tale and Shields shares that album’s same rich tapestry-like construction where many influences and sounds are knitted together with the recognizable silken thread of Grizzly Bear running through it; the result on Shields is an album which has many fathers but in the end is a child born with its own identity and one that is unique in music at this present time. It’s confusing and it’s infuriating at times – which is surely part of its ingenious ploy to drag you in – but despite this, it’s a thrilling experience. Instead of falling victim to success in the way that a band like Kings of Leon have done, saddled by a hit which then goes on to dictate their future direction, Grizzly Bear have retained their essence, packed it safely away in a well-worn rucksack and have taken it and their audience on a journey via the path less travelled.
Shields is by far Grizzly Bear’s most confident album to date and one which is produced pitch-perfectly by Chris Taylor, allowing each band member to inhabit equal space to flex their muscles. As a result, the songs have an expansive, yet charged and intense atmosphere to them. There is room for the usual sensitivities but rather than being overtly tender, here – on the intricate “Gun Shy” in particular – the vocals are more nuanced and empathetic throughout, backed up by a more robust rhythm section and deliberate, assured guitars.
The band’s new confidence is most obvious on “Half Gate,” a song which begins in the territory of typically safe and dreamy nostalgia before rattling to a cacophonically robust rock out finale. Grizzly Bear can still do sprawling epics better than most and two of the album’s stand-out tracks, “What’s Wrong” and “Sun In Your Eyes,” show the band’s skill of sketching out a swirling ballad before ending with the broad brushstrokes of a jubilant anthem. Each is an exquisitely constructed panoramic landscape that dips into every colour on the palette. There’s weirdness here too, injected into songs like “Speak in Rounds” and “Adelma,” which keeps the listener on alert; who would have come to a Grizzly Bear album expecting warped electronica and sound experiments? Amid the maze, however, there are welcome sign posts such as “Yet Again” and “A Simple Answer” which are thrilling combinations of uplifting vocals and stomping, inspiring melodies.
Shields is a fluid, brave and deftly blended record; a winning combination of songs which give the impression that the three years spent ageing them was time well spent. This is a major step forward in the evolution of Grizzly Bear and a true artistic achievement. Should they decide to look elsewhere for inspiration for the next record, it will be anyone’s guess where they may end up.
Reviewer: Nick Amies
IRC: Tom Byrne
You can read more of Nick Amies by visiting his webblog at http://ligger.wordpress.com/
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