Album of the week : Shields - Grizzly Bear

It only takes about 30 seconds of ‘Sleeping Ute’, the first track on Grizzly Bear’s fourth album Shields, to realise that something’s changed with the Brooklyn indie-pop quartet. The breezy, bouncy twinkle of ‘Two Weeks’, the ‘bubbling under’ hit that emerged from 2009’s Veckatimest, has all but vanished, and in its place are lots of guitars. Big guitars. Brash guitars. There’s a little bit of synthesizer too, but that’s entirely beside the point in a song that finds the ordinarily softer-spoken Grizzly Bear coming much closer to Led Zeppelin than ever before

Shields doesn’t wholly comprise songs with the level of bombast displayed in the opener, but it’s no exaggeration to say this is the most dramatic album in the Grizzly Bear catalogue to date. The climaxes are ever loftier. Their guitar riffs have grown more ragged and noisy. And Chris Bear’s drums crash with an urgency that rarely surfaced in the chamber-folk arrangements on past albums. And, even better, no matter how uncharacteristic it might seem for a band whose greatest gift, all along, was nuance, this louder take suits them brilliantly

While nothing after ‘Sleeping Ute’ hits quite so hard, the mood is established: Shields is the most immediate, aggressive Grizzly Bear album to date. ‘Speak In Rounds’ surges forward briskly; ‘A Simple Answer’ rumbles along in a boom-bap waltz of sorts; closing numbers “Half Gate” and “Sun In Your Eyes” begin elegantly but build to tumultuous climaxes

In spite of the enhanced amplification and bold strokes that characterize Shields, however, nuance and refined song craft still very much remain a part of Grizzly Bear’s repertoire. With the heavy wash of reverb on the surf-inspired riffs of ‘Yet Again’, it might be easy to overlook the intricacy of the song’s melody and complex three-part harmonies. And while ‘Half Gate’ rises to a mighty crescendo, the band takes their time to get there, muted plucks of guitar and rattling snare slowly stretching the tension to where it has no choice but to explode

‘Speak in Rounds’ begins as a Ed Droste-led exercise in sleek, modern restraint, with soulful vocal melodies wafting over Chris Bear’s deadened, tribal tom-toms. Then Daniel Rossen’s shimmering acoustics strum in and steal the show, culminating in a fuzzy, punk-ish clatter of horns and cymbals. ‘gun-shy’ is a sonic marvel, with an endless supply of headphone-worthy details: Rossen and Droste trading druggy vocal lines, a psychedelic dialogue between slide guitar and synth, triangles and shakers percolating over Bear’s booming bass drum. “Looking back and forth, turn around,” Droste croons over creaking, minimalist soundscapes on piano ballad ‘The Hunt’ “One that makes no sense but feels good anyhow.” In a way, it’s the perfect summary of Shields‘ thrilling, idiosyncratic sprawl

What’s most remarkable about Shields is not so much that Grizzly Bear have become more comfortable with ratcheting up the intensity, but rather that they’ve arrived upon a sound that’s louder and fuzzier while maintaining a uniquely ornate beauty. For as high a rise occurs in a song like ‘Sleeping Ute’ or the transcendent closer ‘Sun In Your Eyes’, the payoff is a kind of elegance and grace that only Grizzly Bear can pull off

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