Grizzly Bear | Shields
I have been to the mountaintop! This album was not there.
When it came time to tackle their fourth album, Grizzly Bear had themselves in a bit of a pickle. Their previous album, Veckatimest, had grown into the kind of hipster Everest that a hundred bands have died upon—both heading toward its apex and during a sudden, slip-off-a-cliff trip down. In spite of that, I should mention that I could never quite conquer this album; in spite of the cries of the masses every listen left me wanting a little something more. So approaching “Shields” I had little hope that I would like it. But lured as I was by the Grizzly Bear legend and appealingly dull and squiggly album art I gave it a few listens. Since you’ve already seen the rating I can give you the synopsis up front: it’s ok.
Now, before you raise your Pitchfork pitchforks (yes they gave it a 9.1, insufferable hipsters that they are), I should mention that I may have enjoyed listening to this album more than the previous one. You know, while I was up around my apartment doing stuff. But for all the never-quite-catch-it nature of Veckatimest it would never have blended into background like this.
Shields is soft and friendly—like an unthreatening thing in the attic that thumps in lopsided excitement whenever you come home. But while being markedly unthreatening, it also manages to find strange equilibrium between acceptance and a lack of pop sensibility. I’ve heard Grizzly Bear described as “Pop Quartet from Brooklyn” more times than I have toes, but this is definitely not “pop”—it hardly has any enjoyment to it at all. Not to mention that “pop” is a term so loosely used it describes anything with a melody that you don’t bang your head to.
Compositionally, this album is sparser than Veckatimest, and in some ways a return to the band’s roots. As best as I can peg it, it’s a grown up version of Yellow House more than any other album. The arrangements are roomy, and leave elbow-space for some sparingly used orchestral elements. It abandons the previous theatricality in Drost’s vocals almost entirely, and offers an incredibly personal look at him—to a fault. The beauty of Grizzly Bear’s music in the past has been the feeling of a collective: a joint venture of bright minds brought together, but with far more solo vocals and stripped-down songs, it starts to feel like any band could have made this album.
As with anything, there were bright spots: the opener, “Sleeping Ute”, with its clanging auto-harmony and lilt-skip beat had me smitten from the start. Of course, I also couldn’t shake TOOL’s “Schism” out of my head, and it does have an almost-laughably typical Grizzly Bear structure to it. Still I’ve listened to it more times than any other track. “Yet Again” is energetic and splashy, and I could almost swear that the melody was taken from an old Coldplay song. After the Animal-Collective carousel caterwaul that is “A Simple Answer”, “What’s Wrong” waxes jazzy and slims to tittering piano notes over across-the-room drums. It’s one of the far more pleasing tracks on the album that can actually stand up to inspection, but it’s one bright spot in the tepid fade to black that makes me lose the back half of the album every time I try and listen.
Shields closes at a mixed low note, with the 7:07 opus dirge “Sun In Your Eyes”, where the band wanders into deeper waters than they can swim. At moments their former self breaks through in soaring vocals and a bucket of reverb, but ultimately it’s too little too late. Shields is going to be the best background music in your collection should you pick it up. Fans of Grizzly Bear will surely be appeased by the return to older sensibilities, but there just isn’t enough meat on the bones for much else.