And lo, our end-of-2012 meeting is upon us, and we all have to bring a record from the waning year. The best? Our favourite? What do these superlatives even mean? I’m not sure if Shields by Grizzly Bear, the Brooklyn four-piece’s fourth album, is either, but it’s certainly one of the records I’ve played and enjoyed the most over the course of 2012, even though it only came out in September. (Two of the others – Liars and Field Music – I’ve already played.) I know Tom and Rob are both fans of the band, but haven’t heard this record yet, and I suspected that Graham would have heard of them but not heard anything by them, so it seemed like a sensible, if obvious, choice, to finish off this year’s sessions.
Shields is, on first contact, the most direct Grizzly Bear album to date. 2006’s Yellow House (confession – I’ve not heard ostensible debut album Horn of Plenty, which is essentially, I understand, home demos by a near-solo Ed Droste rather than a full-band album) is an unusually structured, dream-like record which inhabit a strange space between alt.rock, folk, jazz, prog, and psychedelia. Songs take strange turns, disintegrate before your ears, ghostly repetitions of gossamer melodies which sound like they (to paraphrase Tom last night) were discovered in a dusty attic of an abandoned house. 2009’s Veckatimest firmed things up slightly by delivering a couple of bona fide singles and some driving, spiralling, physical psychedelia, but many songs still drifted in beautifully unpredictable directions. They’re the kind of records that reward repeat listens, where familiarity doesn’t breed boredom but revelation.
Shields, on the other hand, starts with three of the most rollicking, melodically and rhythmically direct songs Grizzly Bear have ever conjured (interspersed, of course, with an acoustic coda and ambient diversion or two). Things aren’t entirely straightforward, though – “Yet Again” dissolves in a firestorm of guitar noise, “Sleeping Ute” collapses soporifically into the aforementioned coda, and “Speak in Rounds” slowly coalesces into the ambient-interlude of “Adelma” – but for the most part, Grizzly Bear sound consistently like a proper rock band for possibly the first time.
Across the record their songwriting seems more focused, their instrumentation more forceful, but there’s still amazing subtlety on show, too; “The Hunt” and “What’s Wrong” display almost as much delicacy as anything they’ve done previously, while “Gun-Shy” pulls them in new directions I’m not familiar with. Which is to say that, even though Shields is undoubtedly more direct than its predecessors, it’s absolutely just as richly detailed and full of depth, too. I put it away for a few weeks when we moved house, wondering if I’d explored all there was to find within its coffers, and was pleasantly surprised when I dug it out again and realised I hadn’t.
I’ve liked, admired, and been intrigued by Grizzly Bear for an age, but this year I’ve fallen for them hard, and Shields is a big part of that.
Tom Listened: My entry point to Grizzly Bear was Yellow House and, once I had worked out what speed to play it at (after about a month of listening to it at a grizzly, funereal 33rpm) I was drawn to its otherwordly sound and haunting songs. I think it’s fair to say that I admired it rather than loved it but I was intrigued by something that sounded so unusual yet didn’t stray too far from the norm – it was, after all, guitar, bass and drums primarily but it certainly managed inhabit an unusual world quite unlike anything else.
And this was where Veckatimest fell down for me. The individual songs sounded great but, for some reason, the overall sound of the record didn’t draw me back very often – it just sounded like four accomplished human beings playing their instruments really well – and I haven’t listened to it for an age. The video of Ready Able though is amazing and me and my children have spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to guess what the story is.
I digress…I didn’t bother with Shields because, even though it had garnered great reviews, so did it’s predecessor. It would be bound to be another disappointment right? Pretty enough but not much to bring you back for another listen. Well, how wrong I was! Sure, Shields sounded fantastic. You’d expect it to. But this has an energy, a vibrancy that, for me, Veckatimest lacks. At times it sounded almost tempestuous – a million miles away from Yellow House but none the worse for it. Nick opined that the initial burst of vitality would soon ease but to my ears it was maintained through the course of the album. I loved Shields and am very glad indeed that Nick was so predictable!
Graham listened: Again, like Perfume Genius, I knew I had to have Shields as soon as I heard it and it went straight on Xmas list. While Rob’s choice knocked me over, I just found Shields hugely enjoyable to listen to. It hasn’t arrived yet but I’m looking forward to listening again to see if some of the more bizarre reference points I found on first listen, still hold true.
Rob listened: Nick has been pulling ‘Shields’ out of his little knapsack at every meeting for the last four months or so, just waiting for an excuse to play it. I’ve been hoping he’d hold off until Christmas, as it’s the one record I was pretty confident i’d find stuffed up my festive stocking and i’ve been trying to avoid it. I was right in that respect, Santa sorted me out, with a little help from The Drift, but hearing it for the first time at DRC was a pleasure all the same.
I’m drawn really strongly to Grizzly Bear, and can relate to much of what Tom and Nick have said above. I have all their other records and have given lots of time to them, but I still don’t know whether I really get them. I’m not the sort of listener who will listen over and over to records waiting for the ‘click’ to happen. I like lots of impenetrable music, often simply for its impenetrability. Records change over time, but in most cases they give up their riches quickly and then the vitality slowly drips away with each subsequent listen. ‘Yellow House’ and ‘Veckatimest’ both seem like luminous mysteries to me, like a W.S. Burroughs novel or a David Lynch movie. I’m not sure I ever want them to click.
‘Shields’ sounded great and i’m desperate to get back home to listen to my gorgeous vinyl copy. I hope its so-called immediacy isn’t a sign that it will give up the goods too easily. I suspect in fact that its just a little louder, just a little faster, just a little spikier than their previous records but that there are still dark hidden spaces in there. Hope so.