Where to begin with Grizzly Bear? A brief primer for the uninitiated: In 2004, Ed Droste released Horn of Plenty, a worryingly good gem of a bedroom-solo-release, and then enlisted Chris Taylor, Chris Bear and Daniel Rossen to become a four-piece and make two of the better records of last decade, Yellow House in 2006 and Veckatimest in 2009. Chances are you caught the GB fever the moment you heard the first four notes of “Two Weeks,” and you’ve been on constant simmer since, until your temperature spiked with this summer’s two singles, “Sleeping Ute” and “Yet Again.” Let’s just say they were really good. And so here we are: hype, buzz, anticipation, expectation, pressure: thy name is Shields.
And with good reason. Veckatimest was a notable peak in the unending mountain range of indie rock releases; like a bunch of master watchmakers, Grizzly Bear labored, layered and tinkered with minutiae until they had a seminal record on their hands. The album wasn’t without its detractors (in a rare moment of being utterly wrong, Chuck Eddy called “Two Weeks” “hookless, gutless, grooveless, shapeless” at the Singles Jukebox), but the praise drowned out the naysayers. Fascination, wonderment – those are the targets Grizzly Bear aim for with their weird blend of chamber pop, jazz drifts, prog noise and vocal harmonies. No one does it better.
And that’s what makes “Sleeping Ute,” the opening track on Shields, such a huge statement for the band, and for Droste and Rossen in particular, who steadily edged away from “On a Neck, On a Spit” until the guitar became just another texture. “Sleeping Ute” downright rocks in a way I didn’t think Grizzly Bear could rock; it synthesizes an apparently latent love of the riff with the little intricacies we expect, like synth undercurrents and noise fills that crop up here and there. Chris Bear was always more of a gymnastic percussionist, but here, he attacks his cymbals like Patrick Carney circa Thickfreakness. “Yet Again,” too, sees Bear pummel along under surprisingly full-throated guitarwork from Droste and Rossen. Harmonies accompany the fills in standard fashion, but for the last minute, it’s crashing guitar-and-drums, the closest thing Grizzly Bear have come to aggression in a song. Those two exciting tracks prime you for what you hope will be Grizzly Bear getting their long-needed rock-and-roll on for ten glorious tracks.
Which, well, doesn’t exactly happen. There’s another semi-rocker in “Speak in Rounds,” which is more like an afterword to “Southern Point” (the pre-chorus acoustic shuffle is eerily similar) and really only gets into high gear when Rossen’s rasp takes over from Droste’s warmer voice. The song ends at a full sprint before drifting into the wisps of “Adelma,” one of those dreamy, ultimately meaningless minute-long tracks that thoughtful bands toss in sometimes to show off their arty chops. You could find merit in the ambience, but it’s really more an unneeded lacuna: Without it, we’d have three of the best Grizzly Bear tracks to date in breathless sequence.
Either way, there’s a bit of a mid-disc valley; Shields is decidedly front- and back-loaded. “A Simple Answer” is pure Grizzly Bear craft, down to the calliope keys and Rossen’s pathos-laden lyrics: “Soldier on, but please not so long / this time.” But it’s not till the uneasy cello pulls of “Half Gate” and the pause-and-crescendo, massive synth catharsis of closer “Sun In Your Eyes” that you’re reminded why Grizzly Bear were and are some of our very best musicians. In that last track, Droste repeats “It overflows / it overflows / it always runs” before Rossen answers “So bright / so long / I’m never coming back.” It feels like the sum total of the band’s lifespan, like they’ve touched their aesthetic nirvana, the grizzliest Grizzly Bear can be.
The oversimplified but no-less-burning question on your mind remains: Is Shields as good as Veckatimest? The short answer is no. Several songs here deserve placement on the inevitable best-of comp, and “Sleeping Ute” and “Yet Again” are two of 2012’s better songs; they stand head and shoulders above most of the album and above a lot of the music you’ve heard this year. More importantly, they’re Grizzly Bear’s first expedition into what is, for them, the terra incognita of bluesier strains; they augured, we had hoped, an adventurous structural shift. Conservative, instead, describes Shields: Veckatimest authorized it to be far bolder. You yearn for what could’ve been.