The group feel a little wearier on this outing, but also bring a little more focus and clarity than previous records.RCA, 2017
7.8 / 10
Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear‘s 2009 breakthrough album, was something of a minor classic. It arrived into an almost perfect-storm of variables. Album single, “Two Weeks”, was a surprise hit with the song’s “oh-whoah-WHOAH” hook. That hook was pretty at first, but a car commercial would render it annoying. Damn you, Volkswagen! How dare you ruin “Two Weeks” while also promoting the band! Could you not get the rights to a Coldplay song? Also that same year, Animal Collective released its own masterpiece. Their album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, capped off the Brooklyn indie scene of that decade. Veckatimest could, in many ways, be seen as the analogue sibling of Pavilion’s digital psych-pop. But where Veckatimest found a sweet spot between classical flourishes, sturdy song-craft, and expansive arrangements, their 2012 follow-up, Shields seemed to foreground the odd structures of the tunes rather than the tunes themselves.
Five years later, the group returns with Painted Ruins. The new album arrives with some violent-red splashes on the cover versus the more muted tones of the Shields artwork. The new record sees the group returning to more of the Veckatimest sound. But they do so with less of an air of excitement and discovery. Sometimes, it feels like the band is simply going through the motions. Still, Painted Ruins is solid. Also, Grizzly Bear are clearly working at a level of sophistication far above most of their peers. However, Painted Ruins stirs an uncomfortable question. Did anybody really NEED a new Grizzly Bear album?
“Mourning Sound” feels almost too simple with its circular bassline and catchy melody. It arrives after the moody hip-hopping opener “Wasted Acres”. But it serves as an introduction to the sound of the album where the pop moments keep coming. Such moments include the soulful sway of “Losing All Sense” and the explosive chorus of “Cut-Out”. Sadly, it becomes evident that Ed Droste’s sleepy voice cannot carry some of these hooks. Instead, they skew closer to melodic sighs than anything else.
On the instrumental side, drummer Christopher Bear still manages to blow minds every other measure. He pushes and twists the songs like Bryan Devendorf if he listened to less New Order. Grizzly Bear’s signature slashing guitar makes a few welcome appearances. Here, it gets a little more oomph from some eerie synths, notably on “Glass Hillside” and “Three Rings”. The album’s final song, “Sky Took Hold”, is flawlessly beautiful. The song’s stunning harmonies and arrangement rally around emotion rather than technical flash.
Many of the record’s lyrics seem to deal with domesticity and simple sensory observations of the world. Details like “planes flying overhead” and “Half a mile away/ Could see you every day” pull you into the world of the record. They also color songs with evocative imagery, like the “sound of distant shots and passing trucks” on the chorus of “Mourning Sound”. But on tracks like “Three Rings”, the pop generality of “Two Weeks” bubbles back up. It does so with arms-open statements like, “Don’t you know that I can make it better?/ Don’t you ever leave me.” Ultimately, the record doesn’t end up feeling like something that the band necessarily had to make. Hopefully, this is a stepping stone towards more quote-unquote IMPORTANT work in the future. But these guys are undeniably talented. When they pool those talents, they can’t help but make some pretty worthwhile art.