If you read Treble with any sort of frequency you can likely be spared the obligatory introduction that usually precedes even high profile releases. Grizzly Bear has become so ubiquitous in blog circles that rehashing their story seems a bit redundant. And yet, with their pastoral, winding and ultimately excellent, sophomore record Yellow House, their breakout success felt anything but inevitable. It’s amazing how much command Grizzly Bear has been able to wield over a wider audience with a little tightening up on song structure (at least in terms of singles) and a greater focus on their chamber pop smarts. The band’s fourth album, Shields — filled rewarding twists and turns —certainly focuses on their knottier side, but the music is also the liveliest in their catalogue. Whatever the reaction Shields yields, it’s a record that warrants at least the same accolades its predecessor received.
Anyone wondering whether or not Grizzly Bear would be able to continue bringing the magic on their fourth album probably had their minds put to ease at least a tad with Daniel Rossen’s solid Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP earlier this year. And while the EP further highlighted his apt songwriting chops, it also illustrated just how much value each of Grizzly Bear’s additional players carries. The level of talent among the four members of Grizzly Bear is no secret, but it can be easy to take for granted their seamless interlocking chemistry. The explosive opener and Shields‘ first single, “Sleeping Ute,” goes a long way toward showing just how much energy each musician can glean off of one another. It’s one of the most intense statements we’ve heard from the band to date and provides an apropos introduction to the record. I say that not just because of the force on display here, but also because of the gorgeous, dreamy coda — featuring Rossen’s unmistakable finger-picked guitar work — that unexpectedly closes the song.
Following on its heels, “Speaking in Rounds” is significant in that it points to the most noteworthy development on Shields, with Ed Droste handling lead vocals on the verses and Rossen handling the choruses, the album further blurs the lines between songwriting responsibilities. While it’s typical for the two to share vocal duties on each other’s songs, this time around there is no definite sense of whose song is whose. And indeed, in recent interviews the band has noted that this album was their most collaborative to date. It’s this collaborative energy that enables the band to maintain the undeniable excitement that pours out of each track.
As is the case with any of the band’s albums, there’s an almost obsessive attention to detail, but even as they become ever the more obsessive, their music somehow continues to grow more exhilarating in the process. “Yet Again,” for one, features some familiar, chiming Grizzly Bear chords, Droste’s aching croon, and flowing harmonies that abound at just the right moments. The song is carried out with expert precision, lending the noisy breakdown at the end of the song an extra layer of force. It’s a chill-inducing moment, featuring some of the most creative guitar work I’ve heard all year. Likewise, “A Simple Answer”‘s piano-based march feels purposeful and stirring. In typical Grizzly Bear fashion, the brilliant twist about two-thirds of the way through turns the song into a beautiful ballad. Sure, everything here is quite deliberate, but their meticulous attention to detail is sorely missed in too much of the music released these days. The fact of the matter is that even the band’s most ornate arrangements feel like particularly exceptional live performances (and if you’ve seen the band live, you already know how capable they are such performances).
The album’s penultimate track “Half Gate” is a slow burning stunner. The verses are gorgeous, but wrought with tension as they build to the liberating choruses. Highlighted by Chris Bear’s rolling drum sequence, the song storms the heavens like few I’ve heard this year. On the note of Bear, his brilliant percussive accents provide Shields with an excellent backbone. A great deal of the album’s power lies in the outstanding, often thunderous, inflections he supplies.
If there is one thing Shields has over its predecessor it’s the record’s amazing consistency. Not to say there were weak links on Veckatimest, but the highlights were pretty easy to spot. Conversely, Shields may not have a crossover moment like “Two Weeks” on it, but what it offers in lieu of that is ten remarkable songs, each one striking in its own way. It’s one of those rare albums where listing favorite tracks is almost silly; every song feels like a favorite while you’re in the middle of it.
Stream: Grizzly Bear – “Sleeping Ute”