You and your band write one of the most unanimously acclaimed albums of the Noughties. Within it, you meld with expert tenderness all of your various folk/jazz/psychedelic tendencies into one perfectly formed specimen, essentially inventing a genre of your own, and manage to ensure that its technical complexity doesn’t detract from its pure, primary-colour pop accessibility. From Jay-Z to Jonny Greenwood, astonished jaws drop in unison. 2009, is near-enough universally acknowledged, as your year. What next? Three years, a mini-hiatus and a trip to Cape Cod later, though, and we finally got our response: “Shields”. And oh, isn’t it a belter. Most importantly, all the charms of the album’s predecessor are retained here. Amongst the complicated instrumental genius, there have always been moments, pure, quasi-epiphanic snippets of no longer than a few seconds, in which the beauty of the sound can almost cripple the listener; a particular choral flourish here, the inspired whirling of a synth there, in which a unique kind of sonic bliss is achieved. “Shields”, thankfully, has these moments in abundance: the lilting final section to opener “Sleeping Ute”, the subtle, gently rousing culmination of synths about two-and-a-half minutes in to “Yet Again”, the combination of tentatively yearning strings, plodding double bass and softly plucked guitars that welcomes the listener to “What’s Wrong?”, to name but a few.
There’s no radically different change in musical approach here but undoubtedly there’s a marked progression to their sound. Nowhere on Veckatimest was there anything as sultry or downright sexy as “Gun-Shy” nor as bombastically enormous as the chorus of “Half Gate”, with its blood-boiling strings, reverberant choral wailing and apocalyptic drumming (kudos in particular to Chris Bear, here). There’s a wonderful little “Treefingers” moment in the quiet ambience of “Adelma”, but other than that, the album as a whole is a lot more direct: the vocals are rawer, and the songs tend to head for the jugular, so to speak, in a departure from the more pastoral, sunlight-dappled feel of Veckatimest. “Sun In Your Eyes”, the band’s seven-minute long magnum opus. Opening with the barely-audible tinkling of a bell and a bluesy piano line, swiftly mutates into something tremendous, with the multiple layers of synths, stoic horns and plangent, harmonised vocals coalescing to create a sound which is almost biblically massive. A sudden alteration in tone, midway through, gives way to a dream-like, space-filled interlude of a few sparse piano chords, before the song gradually resurrects itself in majestic fashion, as unstoppable as the overflowing river of “endless abundance” that Rossen sings of, with the bass obscenely large and the choral harmonies spilling helplessly over into one another. The effect is cathartic, humbling; it’s a perfectly grand, ambitious ending to an album on which grandness and ambition are to be found at almost every turn.
Essentially, this record is an exploration in human solitude: in the “Shields” that we use to bar ourselves from one another, or, as the band themselves put it, in “what it means to be alone” and “what it means to be close to somebody”. In an age where communication is incessant and possible via an unthinkable number of mediums, it’s a theme which is especially resonant and Grizzly Bear have managed to concentrate it into a piece of art so intricately layered, emotionally direct and, most importantly, so bloody relevant as to set it apart from everything else. When, in the last line of the album, Rossen tells us that he’s “never coming back”, you can’t help the feeling of dread that rises when you imagine what life would be like if he and his cohorts took their own lyrics too literally. Grizzly Bear should be considered one of the world’s most vital bands; this is the album that proves it.
Words: Conor McGillan