That’s Debatable: Shields by Grizzly Bear

Goldenage: So this time it’s my turn to kick things off, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to begin our discussion of Grizzly Bear’s new album, Shields. As a longtime fan of Grizzly Bear, I have been waiting with bated breath, and I’m happy to say that in my estimation, the indie rock quartet has delivered something truly stellar. Shields is not a radical departure for the band, and if you’re familiar with their two (wonderful) previous albums, Veckatimest and Yellow House, what you hear on Shields will feel immediately and intimately familiar. Grizzly Bear’s lovely, distinctive vocal harmonies and expansive soundscapes can be found in spades. Man, those harmonies. Grizzly Bear has always been all about harmony, and although Shields has less of the choir-like atmosphere of some of the songs on Veckatimest or the baroque, creepy chants from Yellow House, the songs on Shields use harmony to accent their strong guitarwork and gorgeous ambience. On their previous albums, songs like “Two Weeks” and “Knife” seemed to be built on their harmonies, centered on them. On Shields, the layered vocals that are so intrinsic to the band’s sound are used more sparingly but to greater effect. “Sleeping Ute” for example features little of the spaced-out harmony we have come to expect, instead building on crunchy-as-shit riffs.

Moving from my obsession with harmonies (they’re sweet, and I think we all know it), Shields sees Grizzly Bear fusing the longer open structures of Yellow House with the pop-indie-rock sensibilities of Veckatimest. Seven minute song? Check. Does it have a memorable (and beautiful) refrain, though? Damn right it does. “Sun in Your Eyes” is Grizzly Bear at their most experimental. I think it was Stephen Colbert who referred to the band as “The Beach Boys on cough syrup” and after a few listens of Shields, nothing sells that sentiment better than “Sun in Your Eyes”. It’s a far-flung seven minute exodus that has Grizzly Bear flexing every one of their talented creative muscles, and showcasing every inch of their distinct, recognizable style. It alternates from blissful quiet to downright explosive, the chorus of “the sun is in your eyes” practically screaming from behind your eyes. Plus, harmonies! It may be their most ambitious song to date. It is a perfect album closer, and by the time it wraps, I often find myself popping Shields right back in.

 

Goldenage: You always end your kick-offs with questions, and I realized that I didn’t! I think it makes for a more lively discussion, so here are a few questions:

I know you’re not familiar with Yellow House (LISTEN TO IT), but how do you feel about Shields in relation to Veckatimest in terms of Grizzly Bear’s progression as a band, musically? Is this a step forward for them, or are they simply treading water, stylistically? What about the longer tracks? Love ’em or hate ’em? Do they work within the indie-rock sphere that Grizzly Bear is so firmly rooted in? Where do you see them going from here, as they haven’t exactly reinvented themselves on Shields?

 

Nixonin80: Alas, the Shields. I mentioned to you how I actually went through a pretty strange process with this album. Like most people fully connected to the alternative music scene, I had Shields circled on my calendar for some time. I got my hands on it as soon as I could and gave it a couple of quick listens. But, for whatever reason, every time I finished the album (with the fluttering “Sun in Your Eyes” that you already mentioned), I couldn’t remember anything about it. I’m not kidding. I looked back over the ten tracks and their names and couldn’t tell you how any of them went; even “Sleeping Ute,” which I’ve heard about fifty times since they released it over the summer. This happened like three times. For a while, I was worried that I’d developed an aneurysm or something, but I realized that I was listening to this album in the wrong environment (commuting to and from work in downtown Los Angeles). That was the most telling thing about the album for me. This is not background music. This is not something that can just occupy space while you do something else. If Shields does anything, it commands your focus or leaves you behind in the process. The only reason I found this so peculiar is because Veckatimest, as good as it was, is totally an album you can throw on in the background. You don’t have to really pay attention to know that it sounds gorgeous.

Shields is a horse of a different color, though. I know that they didn’t offer any wholesale changes, but they certainly offer up a more subtle and, as a result, deeper album. With Veckatimest, I found myself just enjoying the tunes without any real concern. After those first couple of unsuccessful listens, I found myself so engaged with Shields. I listened as closely as I could, constantly picking my brain with “what is he saying?” “Why is he doing that?” “How does this track tie into that last one?” I don’t know if that was their intention, but they certainly got a dedicated listen out of me.

Those baroque tropes are still present here to an extent. “Simple Answer” sounds like something a fa of alternative radio could enjoy. I only say that because I’m a fan of alternative radio and I enjoyed it. It’s easily the most obvious track on the album, but it still showcases how damn good they are at carrying a tune and, yes, offering up some good harmonies. In a perfect world, I could also see “Sleeping Ute” getting the airplay it is due, but we know that isn’t their intention here. With almost every song flirting with or passing the five minute mark, it seems evident that Grizzly Bear is looking for more. They want to scratch the surface. They want to produce a baroque song that isn’t necessarily mindless just because it sounds good. They nailed it. I didn’t love it to the extent you did. Honestly, I thought that “Half Gate” and “What’s Wrong” ran on just a little too much, “Sleeping Ute,” “Simple Answer,” “Yet Again,” and “Sun in Your Eyes” are top shelf.

I covered most of your questions in my response. I do see it as a progression from Veckatimest, even if it is similar. Like I said, these songs seem a little deeper, even if they’re not as obvious or gratifying. I think that one more album of this sound could definitely start to seem stale. I’m very curious to see where they take themselves. You will hear no complaints from me if they keep dragging their songs into longer pieces- which honestly seems like the path they are headed. I don’t see them becoming Swans or anything, but they could become a great ballad band. Then again, they are Radiohead’s favorite band, so there’s the possibility they could have an attack of conscience and start making off the wall electronic stuff- but I hope not :(.

I will also counter your questions with a question of my own. Does Shields’ accolades make a case for them as the kings of alternative music right now? A month ago, I would have said that Arcade Fire without a debate. But with Shields racking up 9+/10s, you could argue that the sum of Yellow House, Veckamitest, and Shields is greater than Funeral, Neon Bible, and The Suburbs. There’s two alt classics a piece in there for both bands. Grizzly Bear is able to churn out results on a smaller scale and at a greater pace. Also, their legendary concert formation (four across instead of the drummer in the back) has created an aura about them. Do we have new kings of alt music? Is Wyn Butler going to take this lying down?

 

Goldenage: I think, much like with our discussion of Coexist, we are largely on the same page with Shields. We both agree that it’s a solid album from a band that has nowhere to go but up. I don’t know that a case could be made for anyone being the “kings” of alternative music, as the field is so saturated with talent. The parallels between Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear are striking, though. I would argue that Grizzly Bear is a more inventive band with a stronger catalogue, but then again I didn’t care for Neon Bible much at all. Arcade Fire is a bit closer to the mainstream in alternative music, and that has a lot to do with them having set the tone in the alternative music scene with Funeral and more recently, The Suburbs. Both of those albums are seminal, and have hugely influenced the course indie/alternative music has taken. I don’t know that Grizzly Bear has been quite so influential, but it’s hard to argue they aren’t the more innovative band of the two. I guess what I’m trying to say is that alternative music doesn’t so much have a throne as it has a court, and Grizzly Bear and Arcade Fire are both sitting at the table. And as much as I adored The Suburbs, it was more of a return to form a la Funeral than a big step forward for Arcade Fire. I can only hope that you’re right, and that Win Butler sees Shields as a challenge to his perceived crown (of love?) and makes some bold strides on the next Arcade Fire release. Side note: GB’s concert formation is sweet, and frontman Ed Droste is eminently more personable and likable than Win Butler.

 

Nixonin80: Funny that we started with Shields and basically got into an argument about Arcade Fire. I’m one of about six people thal liked Neon Bible. It still has “Keep the Car Running,” “No Cars Go,” and my all time favorite Arcade Fire track, “Intervention.” I know that the sweeping big picture theme felt out of place for the band that makes everyday life sound so grand, but damn how many albums can they make about kids?

That being said, Grizzly Bear has firmly made a claim at the pantheon of indie rock bands. Any time you get an endorsement from Radiohead, everything else kind of takes care of itself. The only closing remarks I would have for this universally-acclaimed release would be their experimentation with length. We spoke in our previous emails about how the songs are noticeably longer this time around.

“Yet Again,” which sheds the confinements of radio pop and clocks in at 5:19, is a tremendous example of their use of time. The song features a rather fast-paced tempo that makes the fact that they are able to maintain it for so long all the more exciting. On “Yet Again,” though I feel a lot of variety if not progression. There’s such a layered-presence of different instruments that frankly I lose count and track of them. Even though the song maintains the same form, each verse and section has a different sound. Does that make sense?

“Half Gate,” on the other hand, is a mere ten seconds longer than “Yet Again,” but I find myself waiting for the damn song to end every time I listen to it. Maybe it’s just my eagerness to get to the fantastic climax of “Sun in Your Eyes,” but “Half Gate sounds so looping and repetitive. It was odd for me to see “Yet Again” use its length to its advantage but then watch “Half Gate” flounder in a similar setup. Oh well, just an observation.

I think we can agree this is a diverse, well-crafted album from an excellent band. They’re not going to reinvent their proverbial wheel any time soon, but they’re finding ways to grow within their niche. What more can you ask?

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