There are two funny things about Brooklyn indie quartet, Grizzly Bear. The first is that their sound is often referred to as ‘baroque pop’, despite it being far too artistically-minded for pop, and wholly dismissive of baroque music’s mathematically-precise approach to form, i.e. structures of several contrasting, repeated sections of equal length. The second is that they have no songs even approaching pop material other than the one song which has seeped into the mainstream consciousness from the indie world more furtively than perhaps any other in the past ten years – ‘Two Weeks’, which you may not recognise from its title but will from its piano.
Both of these quirks are relevant to Painted Ruins, their first album since 2012’s excellent Shields. For here, the conundrum of what to call their sound continues as they lace their composed indie folk-rock with electronic textures and, to a lesser extent than ever before, orchestral and pastoral embellishments. Plus, as with ‘Two Weeks’, these songs are up-front. Usually Grizzly Bear’s songs take a number of listens to come into focus, but here certain things strike you immediately: like the Beatles-y pomp of ‘Losing All Sense’, the low-slung groove of ‘Wasted Acre’s outro, the barrelling determination of ‘Mourning Sound’, and the strange sensation caused by seamless shifts between common time and triple metre on ‘Three Rings’.
But they don’t take this direct approach quite far enough. Vocalists Ed Droste and Chris Rossen often sing in melodies which don’t comprise repeated patterns that are congruent with the music beneath them, instead going across the music in a linear fashion. Rossen frequently strains through his syllables without rhyming or syncing with the rest of the arrangement, which rather obscures the elegance of the tracks. When the vocals do slip nicely into the instrumental flow like towards the end of ‘Four Cypresses’, or when a passage is wholly instrumental, the improvement is palpable.
It’s not the only flaw to this album. There’s been a paradigm shift in production here – whereas Shields and Veckatimest were almost rustic, and analogue, their sound now is shiny and digital. There are few orchestral instruments featured, but there are mountains and mountains of synth pads and programmed drums. This in itself is not a bad thing. But their music benefitted from having an antiquated, worn sound – its human fallibility matched Droste’s tender vulnerability and Rossen’s quivering vibrato. The realness afforded by microscopic variations in tone and timbre, of woodwind and brass players running out of air-flow ever so slightly, of the drums sounding live – all these things help to create an ambience, an organic-ness, on a track. They used to be an asset which enhanced and mirrored Grizzly Bear’s ethos, but they’ve been polished away. The instruments appear to emerge out of the ether from all directions, and when there are lots of textures the superfluous elements obstruct the main points of interest rather than support them; often it’s hard to hear Rossen’s fêted guitar licks.
Altogether Grizzly Bear have moved away from a lot of the things that worked for them in the past, and I’m not convinced their new combinations of sound work as well. There’s a maximalism to this record – at times it feels like they’re trying to impress you with the sheer power and complexity of what’s going on, and that just does not suit their lyrics or vocal styles. Potentially captivating lines never quite manage to fight their way out of the milieu of other instruments.
However, they still have the capability for some really affecting emotional expression. Droste seems to have all aspects of the recent breakdown of his marriage on his mind, chastising, regretting, and pleading with his ex-husband at different times. His lyrics throughout are excellent, and very powerful if you know the subtext. Rossen is also in a state of confusion, dissecting his mixed feelings towards the modern world – “it’s chaos but it works” he decides on ‘Four Cypresses’.
They remain excellent musicians, and some passages are astounding – ‘Aquarian’ and ‘Losing All Sense’ particularly hit the spot – but you’ll struggle to find one unadulterated great track. While there are enough moments of beauty and depth which flourish in this electronic, wide-screen medium to make it a good album, it really does lack the warm simplicity of Veckatimest and Shields.
Featured image: Huh.