Brooklyn four-piece Grizzly Bear are back after an extended hiatus with their fifth album, Painted Ruins, one of the most hotly anticipated releases of the year. I sometimes feel that, despite the pace of online media, music has this tendency to work its way into the public consciousness more slowly now, than it did when I was younger. Perhaps it’s a case of a shift in my perspective, but it certainly feels like the mainstream isn’t as ubiquitous as it once was, and the alternative options are greater and more compartmentalised. In this environment it can take a little while for a band to ascend beyond cult status to become a crossover success. 11 years after Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead told The Quietus that Grizzly Bear were his new favourite band, now they actually feel like one of the biggest bands in the world, rather than a poorly kept secret between friends in the know.
On my first few listens Painted Ruins is luxuriously produced, slick and beautiful but practically impenetrable in any emotional sense. Like a lot of contemporary ‘indie-rock’ (as broad as that genre can be), the growing influence of electronic hip-hop production is inescapable. It’s not exactly a new thing for Grizzly Bear either, on Painted Ruins producer Chris Taylor seems to perfect a sound he was developing on Shields. That record employed Grammy Award winning mix engineer Michael Brauer, who is famed for his use of parallel compression. Basically everything becomes big and immediate. It’s even more the case on Painted Ruins than the last record. You will never need volume to hear the quiet bits – the subtlety is in the arrangement of a complex lattice-work of intricate melodies, spread across various instruments, from synthetic sounds to choral vocals and everything in-between. Like Pet Sounds from the Beach Boys was in its day, this is cutting edge chamber pop from a group of great singers backed by musicians at the top of their game (although Grizzly Bear manage to be both of these things, without needing session players on call, and that’s quite a feat).
It’s a lot to take in at first but, on repeated listens the icy artifice parts and begins to expose glimmers of truth, the honest communication of feelings that underpin the songwriting. Perhaps the answer is in the title, for what are painted ruins if not the destroyed remnants of a past that have been dressed up? A broken history, presented gloriously. As I explore the album more and read about the background leading up to its creation I find myself thinking it could well be the band’s darkest record to date. So where have they been for the last five years? What are these ruins that they are digging up and dressing up? Plenty has happened to each individual member of the band, for most a shift away from music to a greater or lesser extent, and all acted out apart, while they attempted to recharge their batteries and decide whether or not to actually make this record.
Bass player and producer Chris Taylor has been on an odd journey, besides producing for others, he’s also managed to find time to intern at two of the world’s finest Michelin starred restaurants, leading to him writing a cookbook. Drummer Chris Bear has become a father, with all the demands that entails, albeit largely pleasant ones, one imagines. Things start to get a little more strained when we reach Ed Droste, who founded Grizzly Bear. Droste moved to LA with his husband and promptly got divorced. In the aftermath he found himself gravitating towards politics, and Bernie Sanders in particular – and we all know how that went. Singer-guitarist Daniel Rossen, who was the last to join the band, has also been through a somewhat difficult time, athough his story is less obliquely so. His decision to move with his wife to upstate New York seems to have influenced some of the more creepy feels of the album. He’s been quoted in interview as becoming palpably aware of divisions in America, as he found himself and his wife perceived as a threat, other worldly invaders, hailing from the liberal big city of New York and the entertainment industry, entering a quieter, more rural world.
The album opens with ‘Wasted Acres’, a song which seems to ostensibly be about working that landscape, driving around on a Honda TRX-250, hauling firewood in the winter with his dog. It’s mundane taken at face value, but the song itself, which is beautiful with subtle jazz-infused melodies, a hip-hop influenced groove and a haunted vocal, feels full of emotion. When I imagine Rossen feeling uncomfortable in his new environment, watched and judged, it starts to make sense to me. On ‘Mourning Sound’, perhaps the most immediate ‘single’ of the album, Droste and Rossen both find it impossible to avoid their dramas, as Droste’s verses are clearly break-up material: “Let love age/ And watch it burn out and die”, while Rossen’s chorus takes in more of that country life: “The sound of distant shots and passing tracks”. These are the sounds that wake him up in the morning in his new home but, while there’s peace in the lilting melody, it’s also unmistakably melancholic and there’s certainly no error made when choosing ‘mourning’ over ‘morning’ for the title.
I think it’s best with an album like this to take your time and really listen. There are songs from Veckatimest, their most critically acclaimed album, that people will be looking for clones of on every Grizzly Bear release. The immediacy of songs like ‘Two Weeks’ and ‘While You Wait For The Others’, means you can fall in love with them the first time you hear them. It’s true that Painted Ruins songs don’t work in the same way, but it’s a real grower and has some of the most intriguing, clever grooves the band have tried. Whilst the sound has crystallised in its production style, the songwriting has continued to experiment and explore new tangents. These departures from what we might have expected yield some of the finest moments on the album. The aforementioned ‘Mourning Sound’ has this driving motorik rhythm I can’t remember the band attempting before. ‘Losing All Sense’ is an epic song which flits between luscious half-time choruses and a strange verse groove with driving, almost chaotic eight notes from competing guitars set against a bass and drum pattern that sets-up and preserves the slower rhythm of the rest of the song. The musical conversation between the two different modes of the song is infectious and, when it falls away, somewhat abruptly, I find myself really wanting it to continue.
‘Glass Hillside’ is another surprise, its verses sound like the sort of dark olde English folk from the original Wicker Man film, while its choruses shift into a slick 70s jazz-funk, that reveals itself to be far more jazz than funk, as it shifts into a bridge with clever chord shifts and smart harmonies. ‘Systole’ has one of the most perfect vocal performances I’ve heard in the Grizzly Bear catalogue: it’s almost too perfect, breathier and cleaner than humanly possible – some of that android artifice that disguises the emotion. Again, this pair of songs seem stuck on Rossen and Droste’s respected hang-ups. ‘Glass Hillside’ finds Rossen lost in “this frontier life” and ‘Systole’, tellingly named after a stage in the heartbeat, finds Droste still mourning his relationship: “You can take one look at the things that we started/ But you know that I lost that key that promised home”.
Grizzly Bear are one of those bands who have risen to their level of success not through attempts to repeat and perfect their former glories, but by constantly moving forwards as a band. While this might not be exactly the album you were expecting from them, and perhaps at first you might not think it is the album you wanted. Give it time though and you might just find it is one that you need.