On “Three Rings,” four songs into Grizzly Bear’s new record, Painted Ruins, Ed Droste sings, “I want you to see things clearly.” In an album that finds people floundering, some inevitable loss coming or having already occurred, it’s a bittersweet plea. But it also flies in the face of Grizzly Bear’s music. From Horn of Plenty to Yellow House to Veckatimest to Shields, the band has morphed quite a bit, changing it sound in small and large ways for each record. But one thing has stayed constant: you can never quite look at Grizzly Bear straight on. Their sound is gauzy, disconnected, pristine but oddly structured. You can never quite hold onto it, even by the edges. This has worked, for the most part. Yellow House creaked and groaned like a haunted structure. Veckatimest felt like its own lost island. Shields‘ thick layers seemed to either wrap around you (at its best) or keep you at bay.
And now Painted Ruins, an album that builds on these previous records but also sounds nothing like them. You get some of the space of Yellow House, some of the careful orchestration of Veckatimest, some of the more overt rock elements of Shields. But this one takes those elements and adds others to take the band’s sound in a different direction. What is unsurprising is how controlled and perfectly produced this record is. The sounds here are flatly beautiful, reminding us that few bands use the studio to as much crystalline effect as Grizzly Bear.
That meticulous approach to recording has sometimes held back the impact of Grizzly Bear’s studio work, though. Veckatimest is beautiful but at times impenetrable, a masterpiece behind bulletproof glass. And it’s veneer kept us from hearing the edgy rock-band side of Grizzly Bear from the excellent Friend EP that preceded the record. Shields pushed the shift back towards that band sound, and made for a great record, though the polish of the album still held the edge of some songs back.
Painted Ruins seems eager to find that edge, and its finest moments do. “Four Cypresses” builds its layer slowly, but the skittering drums and distant humming guitars scuff up the empty space around them nicely. It creates an atmosphere that the band can then, as it does so well, fill up with vocal harmonies and angular guitar phrasings. “Three Rings” starts with drum machines, but smarly gives way to Christopher Bear’s live drumming and the rumble of Chris Taylor’s bass. The resulting song is shadowy and sneering, cutting away at the normally stately demeanor of the band. “Aquarian,” another standout, gets slashed up with buzzing bass and wobbling guitar fills. It’s a troubled ground for Daniel Rossun’s voice, which sounds genuinely unmoored when he belts out the first phrase, “great disaster.”
These songs built their parts carefully, and let the odd or off-kilter or just beautiful pieces do their nuanced work, but the compositions never quite settle in. They keep tipping one way or another, keep building or falling apart. It’s a new way for Grizzly Bear to keep us guessing, and so even if the inevitable lushness of these songs is unsurprising, the tones and moods conjured here — a different darkness from Yellow House, a different melancholy from Veckatimest — will catch you off guard. For example, closer “Sky Took Hold” is not surprising because it is one last epic crescendo, but because the mix of Bear’s careful percussion, Rossun’s odd guitar textures, and the skittering keyboards provides a new sort of density in Grizzly Bear’s sound.
This all makes Painted Ruins exciting to listen to. Grizzly Bear doesn’t retreat to old successes here, or water down some reinvention. They just subtly evolve. In that evolution, however, some of the limitations remain. Grizzly Bear, thanks to great musicianship overall, but especially a dynamic rhythm section, is best as a band rather than a studio entity. Painted Ruins works best when we can hear the players, when it feels like they’re playing together rather than constructing layers in service to a perfect sound. But, like all the band’s previous records, these are slow-building songs, patient ones. But embracing that patience doesn’t always pay off. Opener “Wasted Acres” spends too much time with drifting atmospherics and obvious programmed beats before giving the song over to Bear’s drumming and the band’s urgency. “Three Rings” starts slow in this way too, though it makes the correction much quicker. Elsewhere, “Systole,” with lead vocals from Chris Taylor, sounds beautiful, but feels too weightless here, too willing to drift on airy layers that tend to obscure the song’s details rather than bring them out.
But for all those moments, ones that seem overworked, there’s the subtle balance of “Neighbors” or immediate bounce of “Cut-out.” Painted Ruins sounds like Grizzly Bear, but doesn’t sound like anything Grizzly Bear has done before. They are slowly giving over to their live-band side, and in doing so here the band scuffs up the veneer of its clear production in fascinating ways here. They sometimes drift back to that comfortable space, and those moments make the record feel a bit longer than it is, but overall this is another interesting twist in the band’s sound. They sound utterly like themselves — no one else sounds like Grizzly Bear — and yet they haven’t painted themselves into a corner. Instead, when it’s working at its best, this album finds new trap doors that lead to new sonic spaces.