September 17, 2012 No comments yet
The indie world has no problem throwing around the qualifier “darling”. If you’re an “indie darling”, chances are your discography includes various sleeper favorites, one huge semi-crossover hit, and a couple critically acclaimed LP’s that still spur “best of” debates to this day. If that’s the unspoken criteria, then Grizzly Bear must’ve written the book. Which is commendable seeing that such a feat is, essentially, a music industry magic trick of being able to, not only stay innovative within your own sound, but progress naturally over two consecutive studio albums (Omitting their proper debut Horns of Plenty, as it didn’t feature the band in its current configuration.) Of course, if you’ve ever seen Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film on the art of the magician, The Prestige, then you’d know that every magic trick consists of three parts. Shields, in the wake of a formidable Pledge, and an even more captivating Turn, aims to be the Prestige their catalog deserves, while elevating them above the simple prowess of “darlings”.
Part of what makes Grizzly Bear’s brand of baroque, chamber-folk so compelling is just how familiar it can sound. From the opening slashes of resonant guitar on “Sleeping Ute”, it’s abundantly clear a Grizzly Bear album has begun. Whether that be due to recognizable cadence, abstract inclusion of electronic inflections, or just the atmosphere built through Daniel Rossen’s comforting croon, not one moment feels foreign. Yet, Shields is wildly ambitious compared to their previous efforts. Not nearly as far-out as Yellow House could be, (avoiding the alienation of that record) but not as accessible as Veckatimest (still the best starting point for new listeners.) The balance shows in the second track, “Speak in Rounds”, where Daniel conducts strategically placed crescendo’s to perform as instrumental climaxes throughout the progression. It’s the same formula used for their previous album opener “Southern Point”, but condensed and sharply focused. An act of, essentially, showing you their cards, and allowing the listener to inspect the validity of their deck.
That focus is key here. From the wind section, to the string arrangements, to the subtle horns throughout, there’s no shortage of lush composition to carry on the orchestral tendencies this band has cultivated in their eight years together. Yet, on Shields, there’s an almost mathematic approach to this style, taking classical cues to develop densely detailed arias. Case in point: the masterful centerpiece “A Simple Answer”. The rolling drums and half-noted guitar riff are triumphant enough, but the punctuation of horns and woodwinds at the end of each of Rossen’s sentences garner this crisp tension just dynamic enough to coyly contrast the chorus. The bridge becomes better off for this attention to structure, making an anthem out of a decidedly linear, mid-tempo jam. That’s professionalism over anything else; a deep understanding for what makes your product special, and innovation within those parameters. It’s something that elevates this record above simply the material.
But, we’ve seen this trick before. We know Grizzly Bear can make our expectations disappear within the confines of their wheelhouse, (“Foreground”, for example) and if there was one issue with Veckatimest, it was that, while it had that great closing number, there wasn’t a ton to be helmed continuity wise. That could’ve been due to sequencing or conceptual pacing, but many of those tracks were interchangeable by nature. Not a condemnation any means, because, pound for pound, Shields has less stellar songs than that record on paper, (re: sheet music) but as far as creating a sense of purpose over the duration of an LP, this album is unprecedented territory for these guys. Every grand melody (“Yet Again”) is followed by a contemplative, esemplastic take on your typical album cut (“The Hunt”.) Every pristine declaration of pomp and circumstance (the aforementioned, “A Simple Answer”) is right behind an instrumentally rich carol (“What’s Wrong”.) Not once is there a time when one feels like the musicians at play are out of control. They’ve always known which card was yours, and they’re almost daring you to doubt them.
That confidence leads to an experience more geared toward minute detail and precision. Gorgeous, flourishing songs like “Gun-Shy” don’t hit you immediately and, as a matter of fact, none of the record aims to make an instant impact. There are no big ear-worms to latch onto via sweeping hooks or easily emulated melodies, there are just 10 fully fleshed-out songs that expand and morph, with regal aplomb, on every listen. The quiet epic of that rounds third base for this album, “Half Gate”, exemplifies this gentle growth motif. Ed Droste finds himself swinging his voice nimbly through those ever-so-common half-noted guitar strums as the backing vocals build toward an absolute aural explosion and, if you blink, you might just miss the eight to ten instruments adding additional muscle. While Grizzly Bear exhibit nothing short of patience and rigor musically, they ask nothing less from you as an audience member.
Of course, the final act is paramount to the strength of any effective ruse, and Grizzly Bear don’t make theirs any less complex than the lead-up. “Sun in Your Eyes” is the ballad necessary to wrap up an album of this magnitude. Not as succinct as the rest of the album, but certainly the most zealous of the bunch. “By the look on your face, you set out on a path, never to arrive” Rossen sings in the opening moments of the song, almost as if to reveal the cryptic nature of the album itself. A lot is left on the table for interpretation on Shields, but one thing is for sure from the gorgeous swells of trumpets to the quiet breakdown that bridges this closers exultant finale: Grizzly Bear have no problems with bringing back to existence what seems to have disappeared. Just when you think you’ve been lead somewhere that is completely uncharted, you’re reminded just why this band carries such a prolific and, *ahem*, “darling” stance in the indie (and probably mainstream) community.
Michael Caine’s famous last lines at the end of The Prestige echo the sentiments for the thesis of the entire film (and this album, in many ways.) Cutter explains, “making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. You’re looking for the secret. But, you won’t find it because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.” Grizzly Bear doesn’t work in the business of keeping secrets from people, but they are masters of deception. Even if said deception is tightly contained within what they’ve done so often before. The trick was clearly never to create an album as idiosyncratic as Yellow House, or as pertinently inviting as Veckatimest. The trick was to draw listeners into thinking that Shields would be some type of all-encompassing hybrid of both, knowing all the while that that wasn’t what we wanted. We wanted to be fooled. And, if you listen closely, you can hear the quartet sing in prestigious unison, “ta-da!”