The development of a band’s sound is the defining characteristic which determines the longevity of a band’s career. As important as it is to continue to produce good quality music, beyond the initial establishment of a musician’s career, the ability to grow and evolve demonstrates whether the quality of their work is merely short-lived or more enduring. The ability for an artist to move with the times has been proven to ensure they stand out as one of the true greats; it worked for The Beatles, David Bowie and Radiohead.
There’s been a lot of talk surrounding the release of Grizzly Bear’s fourth full-length album, Shields, concerning developments in their sound. In interviews the band have said that “there was this new openness and trust [when writing songs together for Shields], in that people weren’t as protective of their own material.” There certainly have been changes at camp Grizzly Bear as the first two singles illustrate. ‘Sleeping Ute’ demonstrates an expanded musical palette, incorporating a lot of synthesizers and a move away from acoustic instruments, a bold decision for a band formerly featuring banjo, bass clarinet and autoharp. ‘Yet Again’ is by far one of the more aggressive Grizzly Bear songs with terse guitars and vibrant drums set against lighter pop melodies. Grizzly Bear have embraced the prospect of change and are willing to develop beyond a sound which gained them so much adoration.
Grizzly Bear have certainly gone through their fair share of developments, starting in 2004 as predominantly a solo project of Ed Droste. Their debut album Horn Of Plenty was a collection of lo-fi folk recordings which hinted at the potential of the Grizzly Bear project, but not much else. 2006 saw the release of Yellow House, an album which developed the Grizzly Bear sound to a full band environment with singer/guitarist Daniel Rossen, bassist Chris Taylor and drummer Chris Bear providing vital creative input. Songs such as ‘Knife’ and ‘Colorado’ cemented the band’s deft ear for vocal harmonies and commitment to a hauntingly cavernous atmosphere.
Following this Grizzly Bear released what is still probably their greatest release to date: Veckatimest, a spectacular album which showcased the band’s growing ambitions. Stand-out singles ‘Two Weeks’ and ‘While You Wait For The Others’ adorned many an Indie Summer playlist thanks to the gentle and drowsy quality of these songs. Conversely, songs such as ‘Ready, Able’ and ‘Cheerleader’ offered a more direct approach which demonstrated the band’s ceaseless attempts to develop their sound.
As such, Shields finds the band at a point in their career where developing means making major changes to their sound beyond the expansion in instrumentation and structure which has thus far been witnessed across their career. The major development when listening to Shields is the collaborative dimension to this album, previously their work was a patchwork of earlier written songs woven together. Whereas before there were ‘Droste songs’ and ‘Rossen Songs’, the lead singers now share vocal duties on songs and they are all the richer for it. It would seem that with this new collaborative approach Grizzly Bear have settled into a subtler style. Whereas before Grizzly Bear excelled at oscillating from energetic songs to more considered and crafted songs, now the lines between the two are blurred. The melodies on these songs are given room to breathe and nothing is rushed, but at the same time, Shields certainly has pace to it.
The first half of the album is more direct, featuring the lead singles and songs which have more impact; it works superbly to grab your attention from the off. ‘Speak In Rounds’ has an eerie underlying tension throughout the song and features a fantastic call-and-response vocal swap between Droste and Rossen. The second half of the album draws things to a close by slowly lowering the pace, ending with the climatic ‘Sun In Your Eyes’, a thunderous, seven-minute vocal and piano driven number. There is a definite arc to the flow of this album, one which I feel will become the defining feature upon repeat listens.
The strongest element of Grizzly Bear is the musicianship which is second to none to any other artist currently producing music. Each member of Grizzly Bear knows their instrument and they know how to combine them to great effect. Daniel Rossen is probably my favourite guitarists to have emerged in the last ten years; his guitar work is intricate yet subtle, sparse yet direct. Chris Bear’s drum lines are as equally inspiring. He will never play a simple ‘four-on-the-floor’ beat and there’s a painstaking attention to detail within every drumbeat. They allow space where needed, but apply momentum when necessary and demonstrate a unique approach which is inventive and visceral. Chris Taylor’s basslines are by comparison understated; he’s the centre and binds together what are at times rather abstract guitar and drum lines. They add just the right emphasis to every song, allowing for the smooth rhythms of Shields to come to life.
Ed Droste’s vocals are incredible, his vocals suggest a sorrowful edge to lyrics dealing with the hardships of love. His delivery is haunting and powerful emotive as he stretches his versatile range, and that’s only his lead work. As a harmoniser, Droste adds incredible melodies and countermelodies to Rossen’s vocal lines. Rossen’s vocals are far more restrained. He sings in a way which sounds as if his voice is about to break, much like the subtle guitar work, but makes all the right hints to the versatility lying just beneath.
However, all that I’m really doing here is describing the parts, yet it is the ensemble which is to be treasured. You can describe the individual features of a painting and explain what it is that makes it a masterpiece, but ultimately all you’re doing is attempting to explain the feeling of the effect the painting has upon you. There’s an intangible, visceral quality to Grizzly Bear’s music which just resonates in a way which is like no other. Your response to music this captivating has certain flexibility, you can respond to the music on both an aesthetic and an intellectual level.
No doubt Shields is an album which has proven Grizzly Bear’s ability to develop. However, this does lead to the rather basic question as to whether or not the development was worth it. In as much as it serves as a display of the band’s willingness to grow, Shields is an album of promise, hinting that the future will hold plenty of pleasant surprises from Grizzly Bear. Nonetheless, Shields still feels as if it is in second place to Veckatimest and in many ways Yellow House rivals it in terms of cohesion and songwriting. Shields may not foster the same excitement that Veckatimest inspired three years ago, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t win new fans and keep the old ones happy as well. When artists like Grizzly Bear make albums, they are to be appreciated as they develop over multiple listens and enrich with time.