Review Summary: Shields is the work of a more mature band that finally is able to use their composition skills to leave a lasting, haunting impression on their listeners.
Grizzly Bear has always had a seemingly preternatural ability to build vibrant soundscapes throughout their often-challenging compositions. Their music is not instantly rewarding, but instead requires multiple listens for one to truly appreciate the craftsmanship present in each sonic layer. Because of their prodigious musical talent, I have an immense amount of respect for Grizzly Bear. There has always been something missing in their music, however, that has kept me from truly being able to embrace it. Both Yellow House
(2006) and Veckatimest
(2009) are fine records with plenty of good tracks, but neither have a discernable emotional core that I can relate to. At times, it almost seems as if Grizzly Bear’s superb ear for arrangements gets in they way of their ability to write an honest to god song
That has all changed with Shields
is Grizzly Bear’s most nuanced and layered record to date. Shields revisits both the muted bombast of Yellow House
and the playful chamber pop of Veckatimest
within a more mature framework. What makes this album feel so electrifying, however, is Grizzly Bear’s increased focus on crafting beautiful, memorable songs. The band’s music is still incredibly challenging, but it now resonates emotionally in a way that it never did before.
Take the album’s opening track “Sleeping Ute” for instance. This song feels like a classic Grizzly Bear composition in a number ways: the heavy percussive and orchestral flourishes, the undulating guitar riffs, and the pensive atmosphere created by Daniel Rossen’s vocals all borrow from and expand upon Grizzly Bear’s past musical motifs. You may ask then, what makes this song feel so new and inspired? Part of the answer lies within Rossen’s singing. In the past, the vocals in Grizzly Bear’s songs often came across more like another musical layer than a central element. However, Rossen’s voice is much more present and defined in Shields
than it has ever been before. In “Sleeping Ute,” Rossen juxtaposes the freedom of an idyllic dream world with an unsettling reality filled with loss. The central repeated line of “But I can’t help myself,” in particular, responds to the difficulty of letting someone go in a helplessly fixated manner. These lyrics show a certain vulnerability that is missing from much of Grizzly Bear’s music, thereby making it instantly more relatable. The music itself also mimics the urgency of the lyrics. In the song’s coda, the atmosphere becomes much more dream-like through the use of a sweeping acoustic guitar that highlights the inability for song’s speaker to let go of the past. The result of all this work is a cohesive track that is both technically impressive and emotionally engaging.
Another reason that Shields
is so successful is because of the sheer variety of appealing songs. “Yet Again” is probably Grizzly Bears’s most rocking
song to date, but is able to groove hard without sacrificing the intricate layering of a standard Grizzly Bear track. Just take the chorus-like part of this song for example. The shimmering guitar, tastefully grooving bass, and accented percussion work perfectly together to create a complex instrumental backdrop to Rossen’s vocals that is still catchy and harmonious. “A Simple Answer” meanwhile pairs a surprisingly danceable piano melody with a steady (but moving) drum pattern to great success. When the lively guitar part comes in for the chorus, the song explodes with a great feeling of energy. However, the song still contains a darker core that is more prevalent in its muted second half. The piano groove gives way to a more ambient section that augments the disconcerting lyrics of “no bliss, no light/tell me it’s all just a lie”. Grizzly Bear’s music is still deeply complex, but on Shields
it also evokes a wide range of moods and emotions, often during the same song.
As I mentioned earlier, Grizzly Bear’s albums reward multiple listens. While this is certainly true with the band’s past albums, sometimes it felt as if there was not a big enough payoff to keep one coming back for more. Shields
is an immediately more relatable album that uses all of the band’s strengths to their utmost advantage, and will make you eager to explore its depths. In the calmly meandering closer “Sun in Your Eyes,” Rossen muses: “endless abundance overflows.” This line seems like an appropriate analogue to Grizzly Bear’s music, as it is filled to the brim with multifaceted layers that sometimes obfuscate the song’s true emotional core. Shields
, however, is the work of a more mature band that finally is able to use their composition skills to leave a lasting, haunting impression on their listeners.