It was naught but two years ago that Grizzly Bear were everywhere. Their baroque pop and electronica fused with shadowy folk produced the album Veckatimest and the single “Two Weeks”, which landed everywhere. Volkswagen used the song during their Superbowl ad, it found its way into several movies and TV shows, it became the indie rock version of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” in that you couldn’t get away from it. Since then the band hasn’t raised too much ruckus, until now. Grizzly Bear lumber from their self-imposed forest with Shields, an album that sonically comes across like the most delicate stitching.
What do I mean by that? Well, Shields is made up of dense musical particles all stitched together into mini-pop opuses that make up the entire album. On the surface it doesn’t seem like Grizzly Bear have strayed too far from the gentle and breezy sounds of Veckatimest but repeated listens will bring to the surface many tiny textures. “Sleeping Ute”—the album opener—is so infectious with melodies and multiple guitar lines that you can easily drift away to another place. When you come back, if you decide to dig deeper, you’ll find something a lot busier and hectic than you originally thought.
“Speak In Rounds” is a curious number. Instead of cramming the song full of little bits and bites like “Sleeping Ute”, the song takes advantage of negative space. “Speak In Rounds” is done with an ear towards more open instrumentation. Quiet percussion, a repetitive acoustic guitar and a few electronic squiggles rotate around each other allowing for the song to reduce and then expand, as if the music was circling around itself. When “Speak In Rounds” does open up, the effect is drastic but still airy. Grizzly Bear have a real affection for creating atmosphere in their songs.
“Yet Again” is one of the more linearly structured pieces on the album. Elements of the Beatles, Nick Drake, New Order and Peter, Paul And Mary all fuse together before being processed through Grizzly Bear’s unique filter. While the pop components are alive and well, the psychedelic finish and smattering of constant noise allows “Yet Again” to be linear but not boring.
“A Simple Answer” is one of my favorites. The dreamlike melancholy malaise of the vocals is juxtaposed to a swing rhythm and an upbeat piano. When the chorus comes in it’s epic and tragically emotional. It reminded me a bit of the music Mark Mothersbaugh created for The Life Aquatic. “What’s Wrong” is a dreamy and synth driven and again allows you to drift away atop a wave of fuzz and keys. At the core something sad is going on in “What’s Wrong” but the overall musical context betrays it. To get the full effect of Shields, you must approach it as a headphones record. If you play this through your laptop or car stereo you will lose so many tiny bits of sounds that make up the album. Don’t get me wrong, the album is enjoyable no matter how you hear it, but through headphones it takes on another dimension.
The only drawback to Shields is, oddly enough, is that which makes it so interesting. So much happens on this album, so much stitching together of tiny bits into a greater idea, but it never feels spontaneous. There’s no mistaking that every single sound Grizzly Bear put on this record is planned to the tiniest detail. With that lack of spontaneity, Shields can sound antiseptic and cold. The harmonies never feel that way, but sometimes the humanity of those harmonies are betrayed by the robotic like nature of the music. To be fair, this is the sound that Grizzly Bear want so it’s not as if they failed on any level, more that I wanted the emotional core of the harmonies to be reflected a bit more by the music.
Shieldsis a thinking man’s endeavor, an album of dense songwriting that structurally keeps the music blithe and cheerful. To stitch together so many tiny pieces of music and not have the songs become weighed down is what gives Grizzly Bear their power as a band. Do I wish there was a little more spontaneity in the music? Guilty as charged. Does that change Shields from being one of the nicest surprises this year for me as a music lover? Not at all.