On album opener “Sleeping Ute,” Daniel Rossen’s mathematical guitar playing introduces us to “Shields,” Grizzly Bear’s newest release from Warp Records. There is much to be said for his folk-rock-influenced chords and their place on this record, which simultaneously heighten the intensity of every song while adding an ambient shimmer. “Shields” may not improve on their breakout, “Veckatimest,” but it broadens Grizzly Bear’s sonic palette with dramatic troughs and crests of glistening orchestration.
“Sleeping Ute” signifies exactly how Grizzly Bear wishes to exist throughout “Shields.” Gradually adding each layer of sound, complete with synths and rumbling thunder, the band winds up into full force. Lyrically, Rossen is in perfect form, relaying an account of an emotionally conflicted individual trapped in a world blinded by love. “Shields” pushes past the meticulous production of “Veckatimest,” allowing the music to be content in its own imperfection.
Collaboration is a word that often comes up when critics and fans talk about “Shields.” That is, an egalitarian form of contribution from each band member. Rossen brings idiosyncratic guitar, while Ed Droste sings in a haunting ethereal tenor. Chris Taylor glosses the compositions with light electronic embellishments, reminiscent of his best efforts through the moniker CANT. This collaborative depth is the same kind that carried Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion” to the upper echelon of the new millennium’s experimental scene; Panda Bear and Avey Tare are immaculately synched, allowing them to reach a point of ambiguity in their tracks. “My Girls” and “Brothersport” saw the duo playing lyrical ping-pong, which formed a heightened bond between them and their fans.
Grizzly Bear similarly achieves collaborative intimacy, switching vocal command from song to song and coming ever closer to a unified tambour. “Speak In Rounds” marks Droste’s grittiest vocal performance, with verses blotched with strain and rasp. Coming from a former choir boy, these imperfections are striking in combination with the galloping percussion of the song.
“Yet Again” initially comes across as the most accessible track on “Shields” through its sweeping chords and huge refrain. But just before the melody tires, it veers towards a chaotic explosion of noise, suggesting a self-awareness in the band’s deck of tricks, or a wise knowledge of a balance between beauty and disarray.
This knowledge has come after three classic albums that have explored an approach to ambient indie rock. Especially in 2006’s “Yellow House,” Grizzly Bear was not afraid to take their time, adding sprawling instrumentals in several songs such as “Little Brother” and “On A Neck, On A Spit.” “Veckatimest” aerates less, allowing for more complex, cluttered tracks with vocal loops and heavier percussion. But “Shields” is the album that finally polishes the band’s aesthetic, incorporating ambiance into every track while still allowing the music to breathe and expand.
“A Simple Answer” stands as the centerpiece of the album, where Droste and Rossen divide the song into two sections. Rossen trots through the first half, ruminating on the freedom of a child, “still young and thoughtless.” His contributions are light, catchy and, above all, optimistic. Droste is accompanied by a choir of sirens who wail behind him. “No wrong or right/just do whatever you like,” he pleads, implying that there is no simple answer. The romantic notion that accompanies so many Grizzly Bear songs applies here as well — moments of passion cannot be easily identified, but instead should remain mysterious and alluring.
“Shields” ends on an incredibly high note, with the one-two punch of “Half Gate” followed by the seven-minute “Sun In Your Eyes.” The former feels glacial and expansive, with Droste’s voice fading away before swelling into another momentous chorus. “Sun In Your Eyes” starts soft and cautious, before exploding, just how the title suggests that a blinding moment feels.
“Endless abundance overflows/Always surrounds you, always glows,” croons Rossen, whose fans would probably nod their heads in agreement. “Shields” is another example of Grizzly Bear’s ability to stand their ground as one of the most consistent groups around today. And with one look at their track record, it doesn’t seem like they’ll be disappointing anytime soon.