With the release of Shields this past week, the transformation of Grizzly Bear from an indie band into a full-fledged pop band is in its final stages. If you’ve been watching their trajectory over the past 6-7 years, you’ll know exactly what I mean. The band started with a rather lo-fi, moody, and cerebral debut with Horn of Plenty (still one of my favorites); the focus then was largely on the sparsely laid out guitar lines and the beautiful, haunting harmonies; there was an experimental leaning that made the whole record extra interesting. This was reasonable, considering that it was a home recording not initially meant for mass consumption. As the band itself became larger and more fully formed, so did the music, and they transcended to a very different style on Yellow House (read: upbeat, Beach Boys-influenced, and more easily accessible). Their third full-length, Vecktamist threw Grizzly Bear into an entirely new stratum with a large listener base, and songs placed in commercials, TV, and movies. It was hard to go into a store without hearing “Two Weeks” being played. Their following soundtrack to Blue Valentine was exquisite but also pushed them further into the collective consciousness.
Shields continues that upwards trend, forcing the band unwaveringly into the pop music stratosphere. This is not a criticism; a world where a band like Grizzly Bear can be considered “pop” makes me personally happy. The radio is a better place when bands like Grizzly Bear dominate, as opposed to various iterations of Nickelback. With Shields, Grizzly Bear accentuates all of the positives that have made them effectively indie rock’s darlings: the multi-layered harmonies, the lush instrumentation, and the subtly catchy choruses. “Yet Again”, the single on Shields, is a great example of that. It builds into giant, triumphant moments, steadily climbing and accenting the beauty of Ed Droste’s lilting voice. “Speak in Rounds” is another slow builder that grabs you from the get-go.
Another fact: you have to see Grizzly Bear live for it all to truly sink in. Only when I saw the songs in person did I truly understand the beauty of Shields. A stunner live, “A Simple Answer” is one of Shields‘ highlight tracks, and another example of how well the album fits in as both an addition to the Grizzly Bear canon and as a progression of their style.
There is something about Shields that seems all the more thoughtful than before; each track sounds meticulous. The band is no stranger to high production value; Vecktamist featured both classical composer Nico Muhly and those other indie darlings, Beach House – but with Shields, there is no stray note, and each song hits the right chord at the right time. This is certainly not perfection, but it gives pause to those who often feel like all “pop” music has to have a shelf life. Shields sounds both comfortable and relatively uncharted territory at the same time, and that is a commendable feat these days.
Grizzly Bear Discography