Grizzly Bear have always taken an academic approach to their music. There’s a rigor to it, a compositional purity. Five albums into their career, they’re more content than ever to hold every piece of music up to the light, examining it from every theoretical and practical angle. Painted Ruins comes exactly 4 years and 11 months after Shields, and by the sound of it, Grizzly Bear easily could have spent the entire time in the studio dissecting their next batch of music.
And just like any academic paper, Painted Ruins needs to be absorbed, processed, and revisited before the pieces fall into place. It’s a challenging piece of work. Grizzly Bear have always had high expectations of their audience, and Painted Ruins is no exception. You need to meet it on its terms. This is Grizzly Bear fully embracing the tendencies they have shown since they became a full-fledged band on Yellow House. Tracks come together like Rube-Goldberg machines, often satisfying, occasionally confounding. As compelling as Grizzly Bear can be, they can also be a little too studied, a little too pinned-up.
Painted Ruins begins with a palette cleansing: “Howling at the field/The clearest of days,” and then a confrontation. “Were you even listening/Were you even riding with me?” wonders Daniel Rossen on “Wasted Acres”, his honeyed voice as closer as it ever gets to a growl. Then comes “Mourning Sound”, Pained Ruins’ idea of a pop song, with luminescent synths and mechanical percussion. Here more than anywhere, Grizzly Bear toy with the ineffable. It’s telling that the chorus on the album’s most accessible song describes nothing more than transient sounds.
Grizzly Bear have never been afraid of ambiguity. Painted Ruins balances its filigreed music with lyrics that deal in nudges and sideways glances. It makes it easier to place yourself into their world, as the music plays 3D chess around you. The chaotic “Aquarian”, which doesn’t really take shape until Daniel Rossen chimes in with the opening lines “Great disaster/Shocking sight,” which instantly ground what it otherwise a dark, tense and thorny piece that builds into a brilliant breakdown.
Across Painted Ruins’ 48 minutes, Grizzly Bear they fuss over every piece of furniture in the room, determined to have every instrument in their arsenal make at least one appearance. There’s no polyrhythm too ambitious, no melody too dour, no arrangement too intricate. The density is impressive. Take “Three Rings”, in which Ed Droste laments his recent divorce. Stuttering drums do laps around ribbons of guitar and eerie effects that recall Radiohead’s “Climbing Up the Walls”. The musical acrobatics obscure what’s a simple story of loss and separation, which is probably the report.
There are points where Grizzly Bear prioritize atmosphere, and the songs suffer for it. The meandering pair of “Neighbors” and “Systole” are full of long signs and pregnant pauses, but never offer a sense of resolution. Instead, they pass the buck to closer “Sky Took Hold”, which offers an uneasy parting thought: “Since I was a young boy it was always there/Inside me growing none of it seems fair/I’ve come to accept it, let it take the stage/And leave me helpless, watching far away.” It’s an uncomfortable mix of concession and liberation.
There’s another idea at the core of this album: it’s tempting to avoid scratching below the surface when the surface is so gorgeous. But the inverse is true of the music. Only when you dive in does the beauty reveal itself. Grizzly Bear have never been afraid to expect something of the listener. That’s never been truer than on Painted Ruins. B PLUS