My infatuation with Grizzly Bear was a sudden one. While it seems like it happened in 2009, when my favourite band was probably Idlewild or Animal Collective- neither of them bad to have in that spot, but both for very
different reasons- it was more that I felt “Two Weeks” defined them, or that half of Veckatimest
was so good the other half could be lost on me, and it was okay that there was an album among my favourites so hard to see out. It seems like a cliché, of course, that it was seeing them on stage that I found myself with a genuine affection for the songs I’d forgotten: the darkening of “Foreground” and “While You Wait for The Others,” and one cut from the wonderful, other-worldly Yellow House
I never knew. What Grizzly Bear stood out to me as was a band, one I’d always imagine wanting to help comprise. Three singers over-lapping and switching roles, and songs that befitted that dynamic; harmonies, always at the obvious forefront of the band’s music, that needed to be dealt and shared. And we, as a crowd, realised we could never, ever replicate the vocals soaring for every moment of “Two Weeks.” So we stood in awe of what was so clearly its own thing.
I guess my reason for talking about this, aside from that context is easy, is because it was such a definition of Grizzly Bear for me. They became their own thing on stage like never before, as the songs coalesced, for once, in front of my very eyes. We’ll often talk about reviews being hard to write because a band or an artist is so of itself, and so resistant to change- we often see it as an insistence on their part, say “sounds like another Tallest Man album” and slap indifference over it. But Grizzly Bear is different. Their insistence, their style, is something that’s almost impossible to ignore, and the changes even more. Seeing them live felt oddly important because it all felt the same, and yet spread across three albums of entirely different
music- the near-instrumental Yellow House
, with voices reduced to instruments themselves, the pop-song celebration of Veckatimest
, and now Shields
, an album that somehow shares the stage with the band’s origins while sounding faraway and gone from them.
Admittedly, the uniform doesn’t change much on Shields
. It’s no revelation, this time, that Droste and Rossen can modulate avant-garde into a succinct, often meditative pop album, three, four minutes per song: that, all on record, is a transition that we can now just tally again. In this sense, maybe Shields
only commits one crime to the indie world that finds it a little easier to overlook: it isn’t the transitional record, and not in the dismissive sense of the word. Listening to Yellow House
back now, it feels like a different band altogether from the one who came out with “Two Weeks,” a song that almost felt unbalanced because of its pop dedication; “Two Weeks” could barely make it through its verse properly, bless it, in its excitement. It was an announcement, and almost a removal, in a way. And where you could put Shields
on a playlist with Veckatimest
happily (why would you, though? More on that later), Yellow House
lived in its own world, hanging a more mysterious tapestry. Beautiful, sure, but flying off the walls, and always a little improv at heart. Grizzly Bear didn’t retread, because it would have been impossible to do again; to know where “Lullabye” kicked from one part to another is no paste job.
Making an album without the push in indie rock seems like a hard thing to do- for Animal Collective, it’s the exact same timeline, with Merriweather Post Pavillion
and Centipede HZ
both, in my opinion, their most directly popular albums, but one so much more successful than the other. Is it that we’ve heard it before? I’d doubt we’re that naïve, and my love for the latter comes from understanding how different it is from Merriweather
. It’s an exhilarating counterpoint to the slow-burner record that made them the synonymous indie band, but both can feel the same and define Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s styles in obvious ways. And if it’s all about feel with Grizzly Bear, which often it is, it’s not that Shields
evokes what Veckatimest
does. It’s what the band is now, stylistically, that pushes it that way- “Sleeping Ute” picks up urgent and frantic, and it’s that frosty guitar tone that remains distinct in my mind, and that swirling acoustic refrain that reminds me who I’m listening to.
To further the analogy of indie rock duality, Shields
is as successful at beautifying itself in Veckatimest
’s aging shape as Strange Mercy
was in Actor
’s. Clark’s records were both so similar it was hard not to notice; the cut-up mechanics driving both, breaking up and spluttering because that’s how Clark thinks it best to conduct, and with as much love of noise rock as fairytales, or perhaps a less than logical belief that they weren’t so different. What Actor
lacked wasn’t song-writing or beauty- it had both in Clark and in “Black Rainbow”- but space and attention, and often production. It’s almost as if I can say the same things of Veckatimest
, an album that segued too quickly on its pop songs, like the still wonderful “Two Weeks.” And I don’t want to say Shields
is so identical, so exact that it simply acts as the second shot at a classic album, but its style is affectionate to what Grizzly Bear have left behind, like a sister album that feels the same and often presents the same in tone, made of songs that echo about the place and crunch the guitar as acutely.
There’s something in that, but where Grizzly Bear make leaps the most on Shields
in being able to give their songs space after having grounded them, to let them move around again and trawl back into the wilderness: we’ve already talked about “Sleeping Ute,” which changes so suddenly and so perfectly, but then there’s the terrifying outro to “Yet Again,” in which the band seem to tear through a vortex, all loud and noise rock, and fall out in some other landscape. A friend described Grizzly Bear with a modification to what I once described as ‘just beautiful music’- ‘creepy, too’. He’s right, of course because Grizzly Bear isn’t straightforward here. “A Simple Answer,” written under Rossen’s guidance, plays out as both a ballad and an adventure, hitting at the epicentre of the record like a summation of it half for half. “A Simple Answer” rushes, unwilling to be the band that was once scenery, and under the surface, Shields
is so very different from the Grizzly Bear backdrop. It isn’t the transition. It’s the temper.
It’s on “Gun-Shy” that Droste, Rossen and Bear become another thing altogether, though. In a recent preview for the album, Droste noted that Shields
was the most verbose he’d ever been, and it shows: on Shields
words are more than repeaters for harmonies or the next pretty instrument. “Gun-Shy” is real poetry, a truly meditative pop song in which the music follows the band around, watches Droste mumble a hundred existential questions and sees it fitting to haunt him like a shadow. The guitar verves inward and disappears for moments of pivotal silence, like space Droste needs before he can launch into the next monumentally big problem (“the cold keeps tearing at me”). It’s all so apt, this pretty music, like with the right words rather than just ones that fit, Grizzly Bear are more than the starry-eyed band we think of them as. They’re more than indie rock’s painting on a wall, more than just harmonies flying from one side of the room to the other.
It’s the construction of it all that’s so perfect: that the music can follow, this time, but still be what Grizzly Bear are all about. I once thought that this band wrote simple, stripped-down songs that sounded elaborately constructed, and that if I ever understood how that worked I would stop loving them. A song like “Half Gate” spells that out for me, again, but in a more real way. The song drives endlessly towards its flight, but Droste has the time to say something, just a little thing, as a sidebar: “honestly it’s fine,” he says, like he’s talking to someone, or like it could ever belong in one of Grizzly Bear’s serene, people-less landscapes. It doesn’t matter, at the end of the day, where Shields
fits in for the young discography of this elusive and distinctive band. Only that the landscape’s been filled in.