It’s not to say that the Album Of The Week selection for this second week of September has always been a foregone conclusion. This slate on September 18th is actually full of great efforts by a broad set of worthy artists, all situated in the upper echelon of their respective niches — see the laptop-enabled R&B redux of How To Dress Well’s Total Loss, the tenth set from evergreen fuzzbox titans Dinosaur Jr and their I Bet On Sky, and the Killers’ bold and artful widescreen mainstream American rock record Battle Born. But while it is worth noting that Grizzly Bear is sort of the hometeam around here, it’s also equally important to note that being the hometeam in a town that’s quick to spot slippage is unenviable. On some other week, or on this one with a weaker showing from Grizzly Bear, those aforementioned records could easily have won this slot; as you all well know from our Comment Party last week, though, there’s only room for one record today. Shields is officially out now, and Grizzly Bear’s fourth full-length is in a league with this year’s finest. 2012 isn’t done so we’ll shelve the AOTY talk, aside from stipulating that the shortlist just got one entry longer. Instead let’s focus on the myriad mechanics that make this the case.
As both an art piece and a product, Shields is masterfully executed. There was the roll-out, which conformed expectations around the progged-out and knotty “Sleeping Ute” before drizzling the album’s most honeyed Droste-pop moment “Yet Again,” both of which helped calibrate the record’s polarities. Then there’s the tracklist’s twin pop-pillars in the aforementioned “Yet Again” coupled with Dan Rossen’s own ace turn in the propulsive, instantly memorable, sure-to-be-a-single “A Simple Answer,” important check boxes analogous to Veckatimest’s supreme entry points “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait For The Others.” In fact, that’s a lesson and a blueprint wisely learned by the success of Veckatimest: make sure your pair of celebrated songwriters each have their immediately alluring pop gem, because it makes promotion easier.
But the great joy of Shields is that it is nowhere near as dualistic and polarized as all of that might suggest, and as Veckatimest sometimes felt. Shields plays like a truly collaborative effort, the product of a band blessed by four musicians with distinct voices and great aesthetic curiosity — independently prolific when not creating together — finding an unlikely but completely organic common ground between rock, jazz, folk, symphonic accouterment, electronic experimentalism, and avant grandiosity.
In that way, Shields recalls what Grizzly Bear did so remarkably on Yellow House, despite being a louder, crazier, poppier collection. Yellow House was immersive and transportive, a series of interconnected, sepia-toned suites, rather than playing like the set of discrete songs helmed by their respective writers that Veckatimest could be. Similarly, the ideas in Shields are stitched into a tapestry that methodically capitalizes on the band members’ divergent interests: hear the way the ’70s classic rock of “Speak In Rounds” seamlessly dips into the warped electronic weirdness that then becomes “Adelma,” a sound experiment and mood-setter probably helmed by bassist/string-and-woodwind-arranger/producer Chris Taylor, whose CANT project (and other production work) it echoes. Or hear the way the ’70s play into the overarching genre mesh in spades, via Fleetwood Mac and “Speak In Rounds” and also via the Gerry Rafferty-intoning yacht rock showcase “Gun-Shy.” Or hear the way jazz figures into the brew, more potently than ever before, via “What’s Wrong” and “Sun In Your Eyes,” the album’s pair of scenery-chewing epics, both of which lean heavily (and uncoincidentally) on Chris Bear’s ride cymbal patterns and drum filigree. Bear studied jazz drumset during his time at band’s alma mater NYU, and while his adherence to those techniques have always given Grizzly Bear’s brand of bombast a certain polyrhythmic elegance, let’s credit him with the patient, sparse exeunt to “Wrong” and the overtly Lynchian, noir-jazz feel to the set-closing epic “Sun.” As an album closer, it’s a departure for Grizzly Bear: not the depressing goodbye kiss, rather a rousing stew of all the sounds and inflections that make a Grizzly Bear song sound like them, and like nobody else.
In that way, Shields is not a radical transformation of the band’s template, but it is an absolute, studied, and pitch-perfect evolution. Grizzly Bear’s not just creating songs with indelible melodies and reference points, but informing them with experience. Yellow House was a compositional journey that only hinted at formalistic songwriting accumen with the sublime nugget “Knife”; Veckatimest left the nest, and the mesh, for the more song-oriented, less-curated Dan-then-Ed blueprint. Shields cherrypicks the finest elements of both, and accomplishes that middle ground between song and texture by paying close attention to the recording and mix. In fact, mixer Michael Brauer’s done important work on Shields, carving space for the peripheral instrumental abstractions, giving them room to breathe and exist and inform the tenor of these songs’ core. You can hear everything, it’s all louder and somehow punchier, too.
Shields is the first truly balanced Grizzly Bear album. Balanced between Dan and Ed in terms of vocal performance (to the point that, on “Sun,” they are practically trading vocals, which is a first) and of vibe, where Ed is the bittersweet pop side and Dan is the frayed and world-weary dust-kicker. Shields the most confident Grizzly Bear album: charged and intense, less tender yet more nuanced and empathetic. (For this, compare the Droste ballad “The Hunt” to its relatively exaggerated predecessor “Foreground.”) Lyrically it’s the toughest, the most lived-in, and the most existential, all about taking it “as it is” and making “each step worth the regret.” It’s a deft blend, it’s aging in a barrel: Where Yellow House was sepia and Veckatimest was a more blocky set of colors, Shields reflects a continuum, working an entire palette of stylistic hues into an edited, ten-song spectrum. You could skip around Veckatimest; Shields also functions jointly and severally, but you don’t want do to that.
All of this gets back to that masterful execution, that sense that this is a band that understands its product, a notion maybe best represented with this album’s cover: artist Richard Diebenkorn’s demented spade, maybe standing for the penetrating, somewhat combative aspects to this album’s lyrics, an image rendered with a lopsided clarity and the subtle psychedelia inherent in taking a well known object and twisting it just enough to unsettle and demand repeated looks, and a new level of engagement. Or maybe it’s just a great looking spade and they like playing cards? It’s perfect either in either case.
Shields is out now via Warp, and it is very good.