Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest was — fairly uncontestedly — an absolute triumph for the band's far-reaching, innovative indie rock. For 50 minutes it pulls pop music apart at the seams, only to sew it back together to create something bold, colourful, and imaginative. Often, it feels as if it's forcing sunlight through the cracks of the artwork's angular, stained glass jigsaw, and at its peaks, the window admits defeat. On ‘Southern Point,’ after the jagged panes have sat in restless vibration for the better part of the song, they're smashed free of their frame. Likewise, the joyous ‘Two Weeks’ bursts into sight from its outset. All of this is by way of adding my name to a list of signatories on an agreement that reads: ‘Veckatimest is a tough act to follow.’
While I didn't fall — and perusing various stream and listening party comments, I'm not sure this is a majority ruling — for Shields with the same immediacy as their 2009 release (and perhaps even its predecessor, Yellow House), I've certainly fallen all the same. Here, we're confronted with something raw and rugged and self-governing, and there's a sort of stately, respectable independence about it all. As Richard Diebenkorn's clubs and spades artwork suggests, Shields is just going to show the cards it's holding and be done with it.
While there's still plenty of unbridled thundering clatter, the explosions on Shields don't feel quite as laboured or orchestrated as with its predecessor. Take opener ‘Sleeping Ute,’ with a guitar part that isn't afraid to show its teeth, time signature changes that follow instincts. It's hardly a stretch, in fact, to say that there's something downright cool about it. Grizzly Bear have always been inventive, there's no doubt about that — and if with Veckatimest they found the self-assuredness to take centre-stage, they're now at the point where they no longer feel they need to peacock about for our approval. They're in the room next door, the next table along. We're just listening through the wall. It's the same on the second of Shields' ten tracks to be freed onto the internet, ‘Yet Again.’ It has just as much drama as Veckatimest's most histrionic moments, but now there's something less showy about it, like the only people they're doing it for is themselves (something that's confirmed lyrically: despite its obtuseness, it seems to touch upon themes of nonconformity). Elsewhere, ‘Speak in Rounds’ picks up the baton from ‘Southern Point,’ the skipping acoustic guitar rhythms something of an artery between the two, and the cacophonous finale ‘Sun In Your Eyes’ builds to exactly the sprint finish you'd hoped for.
On the other hand, the more withdrawn of Shield's tracks initially felt like getting stuck in the mud: they took time to grow on me. Where at first ‘Adelma’ was an unnecessary droning interlude, it became a much needed moment of sunken, ambient meditation between the mountainous tracks either side of it; Brian Eno goes cave diving, or something. Likewise, the slow pace of ‘The Hunt’ felt like being stranded in the desert, a circling eagle ready to peck flesh off bones at any minute. Then the next day I found myself absent-mindedly humming Edward Droste's melody, those little intonations on lines such as “one that makes no sense but it feels good anyhow” proving impossibly addictive. Even the velvety groove of ‘Gun-Shy’ didn't sit right at first. There are peaks and troughs to this record that are can be a little tricky, sure, but you soon learn how to navigate them.
Any mention of Shields being slightly more up front and rougher around the edges is not to say that isn't still beautiful. It's a warm-blooded record, beholden to analogue gear and flawless mastering — one destined to fit snugly on a turntable rather than to live as ones and zeros on your iPod. Daniel Rossen's cavernous, reverb infused guitar, the occasional, vivd synth flourishes and the odd orchestral inflection are all present and correct, but here it's presented in black-and-white terms. Especially, it must be said, the vocals — those honeyed, inverted Beach Boys harmonies of bygone days have been replaced with something raspier and more genuine. As Droste admitted in a recent Pitchfork interview regarding the album: 'it's very in-your-face' … 'you can hear the cracks and the moments where it's not perfect.' With that in mind, it's the understated confidence about Shields that will win it its admirers. It's almost eight years on from the release of Horn of Plenty, and Grizzly Bear have earned this attribute.
8Sam Cleeve's Score