Class of ’09 grads think bigger; wilder.
Released in the spring of 2009, a few months after Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, a couple of weeks before Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca, Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest was one of the brightest lights in the astonishing efflorescence of US indie at the turn of the decade. But while their contemporaries chanted ecstatic, synthetic psychedelic reels or performed brainbending marriages of west African guitar and R&B beats, by comparison Grizzly Bear seemed positively traditional. Named after an uninhabited Massachusetts island, as though invoking some Gatsbian vision of the unspoiled “fresh, green breast of the New World”, Veckatimest seemed an attempt to re-imagine Americana, chart the still-unmapped interior of a continent only glimpsed in the work of Van Dyke Parks, Arthur Russell and, well, America.
You would certainly have got have long odds on these diligent craftsmen of cosmic chamber jazz returning with the most thrilling follow-up of the class of ’09. Yet, for its first half at least, Shields turns out to be exactly that. Since their debut in 2004, when the band was essentially the solo project of Ed Droste, through the four-piece debut of 2006’s Yellow House, to the full flowering of Veckatimest, without recourse to conceptual gimmicks or radical realignments, with each album the band has somehow undergone a remarkable sea change.
Certainly nothing in the band’s back catalogue quite prepares you for “Sleeping Ute”, Shields’ opening track. From its first lines Veckatimest set course for “a safe haven on the southern point” – a clement, mellifluous idyll where lovers might “swim around like two dories in the bay”. “Sleeping Ute” (referring, apparently, to the Native American tribe, rather than, say, Ute Lemper), by contrast, is storm-tossed, wave-wracked, with no direction home.
Daniel Rossen has long been the wild card in the band – studious jazz grad, Van Dyke Parks devotee and one of the few genuinely distinctive guitarists of the 21st Century; if Grizzly Bear are the long-wished-for American Radiohead, then he is their Jonny Greenwood. Here he seems to be channeling some of the moonlit soulstorm of Jeff Buckley’s Grace. It’s hardly a unique inspiration, but Rossen’s crackling, thunderous guitar lines and the astonishing tempest whipped up by the band – all howling woodwind, uncanny electronics, and I’m pretty sure, at around 2:45, the sound of a harpoon kabooming through a ship’s hull – is, no other word, sublime. If Veckatimest suggested Fitzgerald’s fleeting vision of American paradise, then this feels more like Melville’s damned voyage from Nantucket.
For the first side of the album – and there’s something about Grizzly Bear’s devout classicism that encourages you to think of their albums as composed of sides – they don’t put a foot wrong. After an ominous beginning, “Speak In Rounds” eventually picks up to revisit the freewheeling fingerpicking of “Southern Point”, but even the harmonies, once so blithe and blissful, seem haunted. It’s as though passengers on the Marrakesh Express suddenly realised they had boarded a ghost train. Unsettling ambient interlude “Adelma” could be a chunk of the coastline of Eno’s On Land that has collapsed into the ocean and drifted west. “Yet Again”, another storming slab of lunar rock (for the first time with Shields, Grizzly Bear seem like a rock band rather than an admittedly awesome chamber troupe), feels like Ed Droste’s response to Rossen’s outstanding opener. The longstanding debt to Radiohead is more obvious here, but they recast those slashing minor chords into spectacular cinemascope, as though “Knives Out” had been arranged by Ennio Morricone. “The Hunt” closes the side perfectly – a magnificently desolate, clangorous ballad, seemingly performed in an abandoned steel mill.
But somehow something goes awry on the second side. “The night is long, but it’s not long before it’s gone”, they sing on “A Simple Answer”, but the song brings to mind Arcade Fire, say, having a stodgy bash at the gambolling piano of Belle & Sebastian’s “The Boy With The Arab Strap”. “What’s Wrong” meanders jazzily to no great effect, “Gun-Shy” is an unexpected liquid, langurous take on early-’80s Bowie neurofunk, and “Half Gate”, all roiling, ominous cellos, feels like a song that never quite comes to the boil.
Perhaps the longueurs of this second half merely set the stage for closer “Sun In Your Eyes”, a hymn to endurance which explodes into a dazzling Aaron Copland horn fanfare. But the epic scale of this climax feels like it’s overcompensating a little for the loss of the focus of the preceding songs – like a self-doubting show determined to send the punters home with their ears buzzing from the finale. But for the first half alone, Shields marks a great advance for Grizzly Bear. If their painstaking studiocraft has in the past seemed over-refined or even fussy, here they’ve discovered a new wildness, a liberating sense of drama. You get the feeling there’s now no place this band can’t go. Watch them light out for the territory.
Both you and Daniel Rossen have been busy with side-projects in the last year or so – was it hard getting back into the Grizzly Bear saddle?
It was kind of funny. We’d taken about a year or so off. It was just a question of reacquainting with each other. Personally, the band is my main priority, creatively. I look at everything else as only helping to improve what I bring to the band, helping me to be a more dynamic individual.
Did you consciously set out to make a more dramatic or dynamic album this time out? On “Sleeping Ute” you sound like a ROCK band for maybe the first time…
We didn’t think of it that directly. We’re always trying to improve on areas or approaches we’d done in the past. But it is something that Dan and I talked about a lot, trying to make minimal moments more minimal and louder moments more… loud. Just trying to push ourselves.
Most bands start out noisy and grow mellow – are Grizzly Bear heading in the opposite direction?
I guess stuff started pretty chill and quiet on the first couple of albums, but once we started playing out, we became a louder band. That’s not to say there’s a linear trajectory, though. I can’t say what our next record is going to sound like, but I wouldn’t count on it sounding louder! We’ll probably try to do what you don’t expect.
Is it inspiring being part of such a remarkable generation of bands? Do you ever feel like Paul McCartney hearing Pet Sounds and thinking you have to up your game?
Um. That’s a funny set-up. I respect what those two bands do. But there’s music you can respect, and there’s music you want to use personally. It’s not that I can’t take anything from those bands, but I can’t apply anything. I don’t think Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective listen to us, either! But I know we all respect each other. That’s not really the scene, to be competitive, to be honest. At least with the three of our bands.
INTERVIEW: STEPHEN TROUSSÉ
Photo credit: Barbara Anastacio