Truth be told, I’ve never considered myself much of a Grizzly Bear fan. Despite more than a handful of intense listening sessions to their three previous full lengths, I would always find myself more momentarily appeased than I would actually impressed by the Brooklyn quartet. Until now. On their fourth studio album, Shields, the four individuals' noteworthy musicianship finally synced up in all the right ways for me.
On opener “Sleeping Ute”, the epic grandeur that led me to champion the arrangement-heavy works of Daniel Rossen’s solo Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP as well as Department of Eagles’ In Ear Park finally seeps into Grizzly Bear’s music-making in a big way. With its complex prog-rock stylings , “Sleeping Ute”’s various moving parts are birthed, interlocked, deconstructed, and reconfigured right before you as the track crests and troughs alongside Rossen’s meandering vocals. It’s a mammoth sprawl which leads you to wonder just how an album can continue from it and Grizzly Bear answer with “Speak in Rounds”, simple and percussion-driven before exploding into action. The fast-paced intricacy of “Sleeping Ute” is still at work here albeit on a smaller microcosmic scale as the tune shifts intermittently between sauntering trot and full on blustering gallop.
And in an unexpected but no less enjoyable twist, Grizzly Bear bridge “Speak in Rounds” and “Yet Again” with “Adeima” - a short musical interlude which riffs on the end of “Speak in Rounds” and functions mostly as a means of sonic experimentation and pseudo palate cleanser. “Yet Again” behaves not unlike a parallel of “Sleeping Ute” sharing its rock foundation but channeling it in a far less showy manner. There’s no guitar pyrotechnics or the seeming one-upmanship of “Sleeping Ute” and yet it’s far from a dumbed down version. “Yet Again” is filled with smaller intricacies like the upward inflected guitar riffs that add some spice to its forward-moving momentous plod.
“The Hunt”, with its sparse piano accompanied vocals provided by Ed Droste, is the first moment (second if you count “Adeima”) where you get a break from the impressive weight of the group’s musical ideas that pepper and fill the album to its very brim. It plumbs yet unchartered emotional depths (as far as Shields is concerned) and provides an almost jarring change of pace with its sense of delicacy and quiet smack dab in the center of the album. And after such a soft piece of introspection, “A Simple Answer” seems complementary. Nearly double the length of its predecessor, the track marches on upon pulsing piano lines until about halfway through when the ground falls out and Rossen’s even-tempered narrative swoops, cranes, and soars.
“What’s Wrong” stands as one of the album’s foremost examples of Grizzly Bear’s excellent musicianship on display (another perhaps more noteable display being “Half Gate”) not in the sense of their impressive ability to create exceptional moments but in the band’s everything and the kitchen sink approach to the track while also managing to keep it relatively quiet and simple. Evidence of the foursome’s individual musical talents shift in an out of focus (like Chris Taylor’s clarinet) and little enjoyment musical moments that are easy to miss but great if you catch (namely how the melody shifts from part to part starting in the vocals before shifting in the piano line and subsequently handed off to the clarinet) are peppered throughout. “gun-shy”, with its bright arcs of sound, recalls Yellow House far more than any other track on Shields but its straightforward nature and lack of intense layering is one of the most notable things that distinguishes it as proper Shields track. It features, quite honestly my favorite vocal performance from Ed Droste in Grizzly Bear’s entire catalog which is saying something. It’s simple but not base and the bent guitar riffs provide an interesting accompaniment
“Half Gate”, another display of Grizzly Bear’s overwhelmingly stellar musicianship, comes after Shields takes a bit of a minor slant and bursts forward with an endearing smile-inducing brightness and a lushness found in the most beguiling of orchestral pop. It surges forth with an intense clamor and ear-catching rise and fall where the bright, hopeful rush takes on a slightly darker tint before exploded triumphant once-again. “Half Gate”, to me represents one of the true strengths of Shields, having Droste and Rossen trade vocal lines at precisely the right time to give it extra punch. Rossen’s emotive swells providing the track with a forward push and deeper well of feeling than Droste’s. But the two work together excellently, handing off vocal duties that both enhance Droste’s narrative and ground Rossen’s plaintive roar.
Grizzly Bear’s decision to close out the album with “Sun in Your Eyes” is a feat of exceptional largesse. Once again featuring Rossen on vocals, the track makes abundant use of the man’s vocal strength. “Sun in Your Eyes” can easily be an example of Shields machinations on a smaller scale – as we’re treated to moments of rising intensity before they sudden abate before building back up again. “Sun In Your Eyes” is a work of tension and release, giving up only what is expected before upping the ante time after time shifting between energetic rock jam, and calm, softer moment where the lyrics read much like poetry, “Sun In Your Eyes” is an excellent closer fully capitalizing on its seven minute length and milking it for every second.
After my initial taste of Shields I was certain of its status as the best Grizzly Bear album in their catalog, an assertion that has only grown stronger and more certain with each subsequent listen. Whereas on previous records I could cherry pick one or two favorite tracks and damn the rest, Shields is both incredibly cohesive as an album as well as in songwriting skill. Each track leans just enough on each other that you feel strange trying to pluck a single track from among them. Even if you can somehow pick out a favorite chances are the many of Shields tracks are not far behind. Shields is the first Grizzly Bear album where I feel compelled to simply hit play and let the magic happen as opposed to skipping throughout. Shields is Grizzly Bear’s most involved album to date and it no doubt benefits from the absolute inclusion of all of its members and their strengths; a testament to the foursome’s ability to create a rich, engaging journey as well as infectious, memorable tunes to serves as the landmarks. Shields is straightforward and direct while also remaining gainfully elusive and rewardingly labyrinthine; a continuous treat and righteous display of true artistic growth.