Grizzly Bear built a following teasing eerie pop out of complicated structures and eccentric chords. There were forays into unabashed pop—“Knife” and “Two Weeks” among them, tidily packaged and self-contained—but for every undressed gem there was a grip of curios, freakishly clad but surprisingly mannered, songs that bucked expectations and went searching for meaning in strange places.
Shields is Grizzly Bear’s most straightforward album to date, a beefed-up summary of their lyricism, but one that is ultimately robbed of the openness that made previous efforts so otherworldly.
If Yellow House (2006) and, to a lesser extent, Veckatimist (2009) relied on acoustic guitar and vocals to provide the basic structure, Shields is a bit of a departure: the vocals are pared down, the guitars are amped up, and the drummer is busy for the first concerted spell in the band’s nearly decade-long run. “It’s not as dreamy and pastoral and sleepy as past efforts,” says Ed Droste, who supplies both guitar and vocals. “Sleeping Ute,” the album’s first offering, cycles through increasingly forceful interpretations of the song’s initial guitar riff for what is essentially a blues number. The next song, “Speak In Rounds,” comes alive when the rhythm section announces the chorus; fluttering guitars meet with galloping drums, and the result charges an otherwise lackluster scene.
The stripping away of extraneous bits gives Shields a streamlined sound. Much of the time, this strategy pays off. “What’s Wrong” is a perfect distillation of how effortlessly eerie Grizzly Bear can be when they don’t try to go in several different directions at once. And while “What’s Wrong” probably won’t win out as a fan favorite, it is quietly one the album’s most haunting tracks. “Sun In Your Eyes” is another standout that benefits from Grizzly Bear’s pared-down approach. It searches without being meandering, segueing deftly from hushed piano to heavier incantation and back again, a very conscious hat-tip to Radiohead. Although it features strong vocals, the song wins no distinction for its lyrics, which are dreary. But let’s face it—Grizzly Bear was always about the music. We knew this the first time we heard “Colorado” on Yellow House, in which Droste musters only about three words in six minutes.
Shields does have its miscues. “A Simple Answer” doesn’t find the answer quickly enough, running through four minutes of uninspired singsong before allowing itself to be redeemed by a surprisingly pretty coda. “gun-shy” has more punch in theory than in practice. Both of these songs suggest that Grizzly Bear, overachievers for the most part, haven’t fully mastered optimism. They feel more comfortable exploring ominous material, the dark underbelly of the ironic, the start of everything getting weird. Grizzly Bear sound their best, in Shields and elsewhere, when they don’t even try to crack a smile.
Fans of brainy pop will greet “Yet Again” and “Half Gate” with open arms, and well they should: both songs glom onto emotional placeholders without sacrificing our intellectual interest. But, at least to this listener, they fail at being utterly captivating, at oozing charm. There is nothing in Shields like “All We Ask,” which gets my vote for most beautiful lullaby written in the past ten years. (Grand statement, I know.) There is nothing in Shields like “On a Neck, On a Spit,” which fused delicate folk with big sounds in a way that dashed “catchy” from the ranks of the pejorative. These songs are effective and gut-wrenching because they weren’t afraid to go unexpected places. With Shields, Grizzly Bear have exorcised some of the eccentricity from their art in return for directness. We can debate whether or not this is a good thing, but one thing is clear: they shed some very tantalizing possibilities in the bargain.