Grizzly Bear Grizzly BearShields
“Sleeping Ute” and “Yet Again”, the two phenomenal advance tracks to this fourth album by Grizzly Bear, hinted at a more conventional album than its predecessors, if “conventional” is a valid term to describe the New Yorkers' music. The songs pointed at a turn towards an impossible, yet not as impossible as you would expect kind of rock. It’s a theory now confirmed, after listening to the whole of “Shields”, and which also explains why the tracks from the EP “Silent Hour / Golden Mile”, released by Daniel Rossen at the start of this year, aren't on the album: they were still too much linked to the band's recent past.
Another theory, supported by many, even though it's not as clear cut as the one above, is that “Shields” should have been released before “Veckatimest” (2009). In my opinion, and leaving aside the abstract power with which tracks like “The Hunt” and “What’s Wrong” recycle the vaporous premises of that masterpiece, Grizzly Bear's fourth full-length is simply a logical progression within the band. In fact, it's an album that needed the achievements of its predecessor to learn how to stand on its own, as, where “Veckatimest” greatly reduced the thick calligraphy of “Yellow House” (2006), this one refines it even more, in order to deliver the truly accessible effort Droste and his gang were bound to make.
So, in 2012, the band at one point described as the “Tortoise of indie-pop” should now be tagged the “Radiohead of the psychedelic renaissance”. The lessons they learned from the Oxford group on their joint American tour in the summer of 2008, already showed on previous outings, but now they're expertly applied on tracks like the aforementioned “Yet Again” (a flag on territories conquered by records like “Hail To The Thief”). Spiritually placing them very close to other experts in laboratory rock makes for the most interesting interpretation of them all, as, apart from the richness they share, it sheds a light on an interesting debate about the question whether Grizzly Bear will one day fill stadiums; if they, like Radiohead, will ever manage to be both revered by the music press and adored by the masses. With the former ticked off from day one, “Shields” is most likely to play a decisive role in the quest for a wider audience, even though it still holds a component so arty, it may not happen just yet.
All this serves to question whether the Brooklynites will ever be bigger, commercially speaking, than they are now, but also to admire what they've achieved so far. It's truly gratifying to see how a project, born from something as isolationistic as “Horn Of Plenty” (2004), has become so big in the underground with an idea this elegant, original and considered. From now on, Grizzly Bear will be able to grow and expand in the directions they want to, and nobody doubts that they will deliver a fourth masterpiece. But it's unlikely they'll manage to make more beautiful modern pop music than they've already done.
While lucid and cohesive, “Shields” is also cautious. It's an album parting from the same stylistic premises as their previous efforts, but it's also more methodical; they are still trying new things (for instance, Droste has written lyrics for Rossen for the first time, and vice versa), but most of all they paid more attention to the compositions, very well written, and executed accordingly. Built on robust scaffolding (the radiant beat of “A Simple Answer”, the guitars cushioning the chorus on “Speak In Rounds”, the teary strings and ghostly vocals on “Half Gate”), they're songs on which the melody always finds the ideal arrangement to make it even more beautiful, with a mysterious twist that keeps them inscrutable no matter how many times you hear them. The album offers majestic and delicate tracks, real delicacies - for example the silvery end of "Sun In Your Eyes" - which are only within reach of giants.