Fans of any given band are forever arguing over the best versions of their beloved songs. Is the live version of The National’s “Terrible Love” better than the recording on High Violet? Did Radiohead sully “Videotape” with the studio version’s cyclical drum beat? Grizzly Bear fans are no different. Most prefer the home recording of “Deep Blue Sea” over the polished version; and I still contend that the radio premier of “While You Wait For the Others” is the best thing that Grizzly Bear has released. These first cuts, as rough as they may be, are exposed in more intimate and natural ways. The final versions may be more album worthy but there is something lost in the transaction – something small but also infinitely important. Shields is Grizzly Bear’s most concerted attempt yet to hold onto that something, resulting in an album that is organic, sprawling, and complex. The songs may not be as noteworthy, but Shields is an enthralling listen that gets to the heart of Grizzly Bear’s sound.
After a three year recording hiatus, the band (Daniel Rossen, Ed Droste, Chris Taylor, and Chris Bear) got together in an abandoned military base in Texas to set back to work. Perhaps realizing that that is a completely absurd place to record an album (even for them), the band relocated to Cape Cod and wrote the bulk of the album in a remote cottage. According to Rossen, the members had spent their time off exploring largely divergent musical influences. Specifically, the likes of Talk Talk, David Axelrod, and Rap music. An intriguing combination, to be sure, but the writing process was slowed by the need for the members to rediscover their group dynamic. That incongruity made its mark on Shields. The mood of the album is in constant flux, as hypnotic acoustic melodies morph into driving rock segments that then build into a triumphant blend of vocal harmonies and bouncy synths. Almost all of Veckatimest glimmered with a pleasant sheen, which may have played a role in its broad appeal. Shields is far more schizophrenic. It explores a wide range of tones and textures and one finishes the album contented but also slightly perplexed.
The album’s exploratory songwriting is introduced right away. “Sleeping Ute” begins as a gritty psychedelic-rock jam that sounds more like a Tim Presley track than Grizzly Bear. But when Daniel Rossen’s voice rears its head there is no more ambiguity. The track swirls in all different directions, as dark, metal riffs and bubbly synth lines combine for a beguiling contrast. Then just when it seems that this track signals Grizzly Bear’s attempt at a balls-out rock record, the clouds peel away and a delicate acoustic segment closes the song. This subversion of expectations continues throughout Shields. “The Hunt” hints at building toward something cinematic but it remains restrained. Conversely, “Sun in Your Eyes” starts out more intimately than “The Hunt” but ends up being one of the most expansive, and gripping, tracks the band has ever written. Even the more pop-oriented tracks (“Yet Again,” “A Simple Answer,” “Gun-Shy”) have unexpected flourishes of distortion or psychedelia. This unpredictability makes Shields a rewarding repeat listen and contributes to the album’s off-the-cuff atmosphere.
While Shields is a departure from Veckatamist, it’s unlikely to frighten away the considerable fan base that the sophomore album attracted. The fundamental draws remain unchanged: Rossen and Droste still have excellent voices, the melodies are still as ornate as they are catchy, and the group still blends psychedelic-rock, folk, and pop in fascinating ways. “Adelma” may seem like an odd ambient interlude on its own but as a lead up to the gorgeous “Yet Again” it makes for an ideal primer. “Yet Again”’s vocal harmonies and near perfect pop licks sound all the more comforting. That warmth comes back again on “A Simple Answer,” a song that makes a clustered arrangement sound coherent and spacious. The opening of guitar, drums, and piano is quickly joined by swirling guitar riffs, cooing vocals and twee synth adornments. As with most of their work, each layer added makes the track even more lovely.
With that said, the subtle changes that Grizzly Bear have made for Shields are fundamental to its success. For instance, “A Simple Answer” is a standard Grizzly Bear pop tune up to the fourth minute. At that point, the original structure of the song is abandoned and the mood goes on a downward spelunking mission into a cave of melancholy. One is meant to feel entirely different sensations at the beginning of the song as compared to the end. It’s a journey rather than just a panoramic view. Some will find this irritating while others, like myself, will appreciate that “Sun In Your Eyes” is meant to be a “seven-minute Ayahusca trip.” Beyond the fact that Shields is good for taking hallucinogenics, the sound is the least polished of all three albums. Droste noted recently that he used to record his vocals in six different layers, such that any imperfections would be blended out. For this record, both he and Rossen allowed their vocals to be more exposed. Cracks and pitch mistakes may be more prevalent but that gives the voices a warmth a nd humanity that has thus far only shown up on non-studio material. Thankfully, Grizzly Bear have become confident enough to enjoy their imperfections.
All else aside, it’s simply nice to have new Grizzly Bear to listen to again. They are part of the fabric of young indie fans who long for an epic melody and whose life “totally changed, man” when Funeral came out. Some no doubt find their music overwrought, but it would be difficult to say that a minimalist approach is the right prescription for Grizzly Bear. Indeed, Shields works because of its complexity rather than in spite of it. Acoustic guitars, glockenspiels, synths, banjos, horns, pianos and voices all combine to make a Rorschach test of an album that shows Grizzly Bear exploring familiar territory as well as searching for something unknown. Given the lengthy gaps between albums and Rossen’s various side projects it’s hard to know how long it will be before new Grizzly Bear surfaces. All the better then that Shields is a bit confounding. It leaves the listener room to wander and, more importantly, it sets itself up as an album that is meant to be explored as much as it is enjoyed. [A-]