A record that is easy to admire, but difficult to love
It’s hard to maintain a sparkling mood at all times, especially when you’re a bear with a sore head. Brooklynites Grizzly Bear have always made music that doesn’t just dream about escaping the stresses and strains of the city, but was recorded on just such getaways. 2009’s ‘Veckatimest’ rang with a utopian Cape Cod beauty and hummed with the cool breezes of the uninhabited island after which it was named, and its clear, glittering grace brought this band of jazz-folk alt-muso-weirdos to a wider audience. For its follow-up, they left town again, but this time headed for the brittle heat of Texas. They worked through 40-degree heat amid wildfires to once more track down that space between Americana and avant-garde that they’ve made – despite many pale-ghostly imitators – their own.
‘Shields’, appropriately, is an album that often feels like aural heat-rash – itchy and in search of relief. In fact, it’s downright narky at times. “‘Veckatimest’ was more polite and pastoral; this is a bit more raw and exposed, and more upbeat too,” singer Ed Droste has said. But ‘upbeat’ isn’t quite the word we’d have used. ‘Shields’ is more moody and muscular, but it’s far from happy-go-lucky, as is clear from the first scratchy strum of ‘Sleeping Ute’ – a song Droste describes as “a restless wandering dream, almost like a nightmare… trying to wake yourself out of something crazy”. It’s richly textured, the delicate ripples of guitar, circling arpeggios and reverberating clanks lit by Daniel Rossen’s seething warble: “If I could find peace/If this night bleeds/But I can’t help myself”.
‘Yet Again’’s smooth beauty shifts and warps through tortured electronics into something stroppy and almost Beck-ish, while ‘The Hunt’ is disconsolate, downbeat, a lost piano ballad full of soft hisses, string-scrapes and strange noises. ‘A Simple Answer’ has a crackling, warm bounce that recalls ‘Instant Karma!’ as covered by a ragged Paul Simon, Daniel Rossen’s voice exuberant over rolling organ: “No wrong or right/Just do whatever you like/No bliss no light/Tell me it’s all just a lie/You can’t scare me none”. ‘Gun-Shy’ is something of a standout, a heat-drowsy, slow Latin rhythm with a ’70s vibe only a few thousand miles away from Metronomy’s English Riviera.
Yet, for all the strange twists and turns, the rich layers and dark beauty to be found, nothing here grabs you and sets up home in your heart like ‘Veckatimest’ did. That’s not because it’s not as pretty or carefree – more that its greater heft and complex, irritable emotional tone feels like a semi-delirious transition rather than waking into a new state of being. The slow, sad build-up, chorused vocals and grand crescendos of ‘Sun In Your Eyes’ offer a final release, but you can’t help but hope that next time, the Bears come back with a clear head and a clearer vision.