Premature Evaluation: Grizzly Bear Painted Ruins
While 2016 was a year dominated by high-profile albums from visionary pop stars and rappers (Kanye West, Solange, Frank Ocean, Chance The Rapper, Beyoncé, Rihanna) and a few stunning comebacks from established elder statesmen of various generations (Radiohead, Nick Cave, A Tribe Called Quest, David Bowie) — often released with little or no warning — 2017 has occasionally felt like an echo of some other time. It’s been characterized by the return of many of the signature indie acts of the ’00s (particularly the late ’00s), with most of those artists now creeping into middle age and several albums deep into their careers, usually putting their music out with a traditional multi-month lead-in. The National, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Fleet Foxes, Broken Social Scene, Feist, Spoon, Wolf Parade, and presumably St. Vincent are all in the mix this year. And on Friday, Grizzly Bear will officially add their name to the big ’00s recurrence when they release their fifth full-length album, Painted Ruins.
At one point, Grizzly Bear were one of the posterboys for this whole thing. Last time they released an album, 2012’s Shields, they were the subject of an infamous New York article that branded them “indie-rock royalty” before using them as a test case to observe what making it in the music world — and, really, as an artist in some kind of rock idiom but particularly one born from indie culture — even means in the 21st century. Grizzly Bear had “made it” on the strength and exposure of their 2009 release Veckatimest. There was the ubiquity of “Two Weeks” (including a Volkswagen commercial during the Super Bowl); there was Jay-Z and Beyoncé dancing to “Ready, Able” at a Grizzly Bear show seven years before a murderer’s row of indie artists wound up in the credits of Lemonade.
It’s been five years since Shields. An artist’s standing can change a lot with a gap like that, even before you account for just how much things have changed in those particular five years, and how rapidly. Now, it’s hard to qualify Grizzly Bear’s stature. Rather than positioning them as being at the forefront of the indie world, the articles this time around give the band members space to air their anxieties about how a band like Grizzly Bear couldn’t have started in the current music landscape, and where they might fit into it even at this point in their career. “Is anyone listening? Is anyone gonna read this?” Ed Droste asks — seemingly facetiously but maybe not? — at the end of a recent SPIN interview. The overarching tone feels loaded: Where does Grizzly Bear belong in 2017? What does Grizzly Bear sound like in 2017?
The answer Painted Ruins provides is almost contradictory: They sound so little like the other indie survivors releasing music this year that the album blatantly hits you with its Grizzly Bear-ness, but at the same time it marks some sonic and stylistic exploration for the band.
Their pastoral roots are still there, in the cascading guitars of “Three Rings” or “Neighbors” or the cooing “Systole” (Chris Taylor’s first time delivering a lead vocal for the band). Those and other trademark Grizzly Bear elements — like sweet-but-melancholic harmonies and melodies that weave like a wandering brushstroke — are in full effect, but they’re surrounded by slick, urbane textures, an atmospheric sheen. Sometimes the rhythms still tumble, still conjure a forested trail; more often, they skitter and skip, punctuated by prominent bass pulses. That’s not a completely new look for them, either, but it’s a groove-oriented muscularity that pushes further forward from approaches they began to toy with on Shields.
Grizzly Bear’s baroque take on Americana was more intact on Shields, an ultimately underrated record in the band’s history. But even then, they had begun to branch out to where they eventually arrived on Painted Ruins, wrangling their sense of wandering into more solidified forms than before. It was also a slightly more immediate record, with weird-but-infectious songs like “Speak In Rounds” or “Yet Again,” a shimmering, autumnal song that remains one of their finest.
At the same time that Painted Ruins might have harder corners than their earlier work, it’s more difficult to get a grasp on than the similar moments on Shields. Much of it unravels or twists and folds into strange directions, requiring a lot of time to decipher and define. Despite indie flashpoint moments like “Two Weeks” or “Ready, Able,” they’ve never actually been overly accessible relative to some of their peers — rather than the gratifying climaxes of Arcade Fire’s arena-indie, Grizzly Bear songs always had a tendency to amble or remain half-enigmatic. But there’s something about Painted Ruins, in its density or in the fact that so many of its songs curl through multi-part structures, that make it perhaps their most elusive work.
Though the album has less anchors to serve as guideposts, it does give you a few as you listen through the whole thing. “Mourning Sound,” the album’s first official single despite “Three Rings” being our initial preview, marries a pounding, propulsive rhythm and a vocal that gently glides above, making it an instantly indelible Grizzly Bear song. The aforementioned “Systole” has a ghostly quality to it, but it’s also one of the simplest, prettiest tracks on the album. “Neighbors” has a classic Grizzly Bear churn.
The rest of Painted Ruins is dominated by little puzzles, even by the standards of adventurous and discursive Grizzly Bear songs from prior records. Sometimes, the band gets dangerously close to tripping over themselves, teetering on the edge of cramming too many ideas, too many passages, into average song lengths. But when you go along for the whole ride, the rewards are frequent, songs turning a corner or cresting into sections of intense beauty. ”Three Rings” takes a few listens to get a handle on, but its first section pulls you in and the trajectory of the song leads you to one of the most satisfying climaxes on Painted Ruins, vocals and rolling guitar work intensifying together, decorated by watery synth flourishes bubbling up around them. There’s the fitting ebb and flow of the guitar outro in “Aquarian” and the more acidic strikes that accentuate the chorus of closer “Sky Took Hold.” And the Radiohead-indebted “Wasted Acres” rides its moody groove through various embellishments that feel like sunrises and sunsets at once, serving as the perfect opener for the album. Painted Ruins is the kind of album that feels like it definitely took some time to piece together, with an attention to small details that rewards the listener who’s looking for those small details, too.
This makes Painted Ruins an album for Grizzly Bear fans, those who were already along for the ride, which lends additional poignancy to the moments in interviews where they question what it all means right now. Between that SPIN interview and another one on Pitchfork, you can find the band members owning their age, acknowledging the passage of years, whether it’s in discussions of life events like marriages and divorce, preferences like still buying music rather than streaming, or pondering whether you can really start an old-school, democratic four-piece band like Grizzly Bear in today’s climate and have it work.
Of course, in the aforementioned New York interview from 2012, Daniel Rossen had already expressed some hesitation about his music as the years went on:
“I was checking in on what other people were making and feeling real distanced from it, like what I make feels really irrelevant now. Like I guess my ideas are just really old? Very mid-aughts now?”
And he was wondering this five years ago. By 2017, you’d have to imagine those anxieties are that much more significant within the band, or they’ve grown to accept that Grizzly Bear will be Grizzly Bear, and perhaps that means they won’t quite sound like their peers anymore, to the extent they ever did. And that’s the way Painted Ruins is. It doesn’t sound of this moment but it sounds like Grizzly Bear. And while that might make it an odd question to grapple with today, chances are it’s better in the long run: a piece of art that’ll be able to exist on its own terms for the band and their fans alike.