“But I can’t help myself.”
I read a review of the new Grizzly Bear album that said nothing in their back catalogue could prepare you for the opening track, ‘Sleeping Ute’, but I think I’d disagree.
Yes the production (what is that harpoon sound?) is bigger and ballsier than anything that has come before, but ‘On a Neck, On a Spit’ (from Yellow House, 2006) is when I first thought, wow, this band is promising. Shields is the album where that promise is fully realised.
It’s not that I didn’t like Veckatimest (from 2009) but it was too polite. Chamber pop; smart, polished, beautiful in places, but kind of unsurprising. ‘Two Weeks’ became a bit of an anthem in our house, but mainly because our recently born son smiled at the intro. That says it all really!
So I wasn’t unprepared for what I’m hearing on Shields, I was expecting it last time round.
For the uninitiated, Grizzly Bear are from Brooklyn and formed in the early 2000s. Shields is their fourth album and was released in September 2012, a pretty good month for music all in all after a quiet summer. It’s by far their most ambitious record, but one which I expect will be eclipsed by Veckatimest in terms of sales.
And the music? ‘Sleeping Ute’ is an opening tour de force, full of drama, constantly moving but underpinned by acoustic guitar and the repeated phrase, “and I can’t help myself.” It’s dizzying and is followed by the double header of ‘Speak In Rounds’ and ‘Yet Again’. Both continue the pace set by the opening, the former ending in a squall of guitar and horns that brings to mind a runaway train.
‘The Hunt’ slows things down again and reminds me of Yellow House. ‘A Simple Answer’ is propelled along amiably by piano and Christopher Bear’s drums, making way for a much more sinister coda and is perhaps my favourite track at the time of writing.
‘What’s Wrong’ is all smoky jazz clubs and film noir, showing off Daniel Rossen’s jazz chops and adding a sense of mystery to the feeling of restlessness throughout the rest of the album.
And then comes the closing trio of tracks. ‘gun-shy’ wouldn’t be astray on Veckatimest, which makes the album’s final flourish all the more exciting.
‘Half Gate’ and ‘Sun In Your Eyes’ return to the ambition and scale of the opening. The former has a lovely guitar refrain that gives me goose bumps when it kicks back in just after 3 minutes. The latter, well…wow. I’ve not heard the new Bond theme, but if it has half the drama of ‘Sun In Your Eyes’ I’d be surprised.
Across its 7 minutes we get piano ballad, horn fanfare (the review above likens it to Copeland), a false ending, the best harmonies on the album and a Greek chorus/call and response ending. I’d say it was breathless, but the piano filled space in the middle of the song lets you catch your breath for the finale.
And the sign of a good album? Immediately wanting to put it back on again. I have listened to this a lot over the past few weeks and there’s something new in there each time.
This is a realisation of everything they’ve achieved so far and their best album to date. Six years in the making.