Yes, you guessed right. Grizzly Bear is one of my favorite bands.
Three years after the release of Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear is set to launch Shields on September 18th under Warp Records.
Talking about the new album, band member Ed Droste says Shields is “very in-your-face — the drums and vocals are clearer and louder.” Don’t expect a Veckatimest: Part II, though. “All of our albums sound like us, but they’re definitely not the same.”
Grizzly Bear is set to begin a world tour on September 16th. Listen to the first single “Sleeping Ute” below, which was released back in June.
Anyone looking for a sobering contrast between the British and American rock scenes could alight on the differing career trajectories of indie bands. The firework band seems to have become the norm over here: we now expect artists to appear fully formed, then spend the rest of their careers struggling to appear as interesting as they did at first. Compare this to the fortunes of Grizzly Bear. They started life in 2004 – a year Britain was falling, at various angles, for Razorlight, the Others, the 22-20s and Goldie Lookin’ Chain – as the home-recording project of Edward Droste, the results meant only to be heard by friends. But the tape circulated and the band toured relentlessly: following the release of 2006’s Yellow House, they supported Radiohead, whose guitarist Jonny Greenwood acclaimed them as his favourite band. In 2009, they crashed into the US top 10 with their third album, Veckatimest.
An alt-rock band hitting it big in Britain after five years, with their third album, would be in itself a talking point, but it was compounded by the fact that Veckatimest was an improbable candidate for top 10 success. To hear Grizzly Bear talk about its accessibility, you would have thought Veckatimest was a brazen lunge for the mainstream jugular involving a guest appearance from Justin Bieber and production by Calvin Harris and Will.I.Am. In fact, it sounded more like their trickiest record to date, a rich, dense weave of sound that variously involved the composer Nico Muhly, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and a string quartet drawn from the American Contemporary Music Ensemble.
It was an impressively ambitious and complex album, but if you had to level a criticism at Veckatimest, you could argue it was easier to admire than adore. As with a lot of music from what you might call the brains-trust end of the US indie spectrum, it occasionally felt like a difficult scientific problem was being solved in front of you: every note and noise appeared to have been thought carefully through, with an inevitable effect. Under the circumstances, the news that the followup has taken three apparently quite agonising years to complete – with an entire album scrapped in the process – might not be entirely welcome.
There are certainly moments when Shields sounds exactly like you might expect something that’s been agonised over by a bunch of clever American indie musicians for three years to sound: What’s Wrong drifts beautifully along without connecting, its intricate mesh of woodwind, vocal harmonies, jazzy drum patterns and string interludes all good judgment and no gut-punch. But more often, it sounds as if Grizzly Bear have spent their time away digging out the emotions that sometimes get buried beneath the technical fireworks. Speak in Rounds builds to a climax that – to use a phrase not much associated with Grizzly Bear – rocks, and furthermore rocks in a viscerally thrilling manner. The opener, Sleeping Ute, is every bit as knotty as anything on Veckatimest, but its odd time signature and synthesiser arpeggios appear to be there for a purpose. The music sounds as if it’s tossing and turning: “If I could find peace … If I could lie still … But I can’t help myself.”
Some songs have caused a degree of controversy. When Yet Again leaked, a YouTube user compared it to Coldplay, thus answering at a stroke the question: “What’s the quickest way to send Grizzly Bear’s fans apoplectic with rage?” But he had a point, at least about where the music on Shields might conceivably end up. Making music that could fill arenas without first checking your brain into said arenas’ cloakroom facilities is clearly very difficult indeed: only Grizzly Bear’s old friends Radiohead seem able to continually pull in a mass audience without ever appearing to cravenly pander to the lowest common denominator. But Yet Again and A Simple Answer genuinely sound as if they could do the same. The arrangements and production are full of strange depths and unexpected touches – the former builds to a furious, distorted climax, the latter’s lovely harmonies are trailed by an unsettling, piercing distorted noise – but at heart these are beautiful, strident, undeniable tunes. So is Sun in Your Eyes, an epic clatter that surges from nothing to a piano ballad to a vast climax, underpinned by blaring, valedictory synths, then back to nothing again. It, too, has a weird time signature and tricky drumming, but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine huge crowds punching the air to it.
It’s not clear if huge crowds punching the air is what Grizzly Bear want: they trailed the album with Sleeping Ute, not the actions of a band desperate to lure in the floating voter. Whatever happens, they’re certainly not having to struggle to appear as interesting as they did on arrival. If anything, they’re getting more intriguing as they go on: an object lesson in the value of allowing things to progress at their own pace.
First song off the new album + a world-wide tour. How’s that sound?
1. Sleeping Ute
2. Speak in Rounds
4. Yet Again
5. The Hunt
6. A Simple Answer
7. What’s Wrong
9. Half Gate
10. Sun in Your Eyes