| POSTED BY: DON SAAS
What defines a successful musical career? Is it maintaining a large and loyal fandom even if that means sticking to what you know as a band and not leaving your comfort zone? Is it pushing yourself to the boundaries of musical expression in the name of art and critical acclaim at the potential cost of a larger fan base? Or is it just the ability to continue doing what you love, critics and consumers be damned? No matter how you slice it, Brooklyn psych-folk outfit Grizzly Bear are continuing their hugely successful career. After the universally beloved Veckatimest, it didn't seem possible for the band to top themselves, but they've somehow done it with the superb Shields -- possibly one of the best albums of the year to date.
The immediate comparison to make here is that Shields is the Bon Iver to Veckatimest's For Emma. To say that Grizzly Bear has expanded their sonic palette may well be the understatement of the year. Simply compare album opener "Sleeping Ute" to Grizzly Bear's breakthrough track "Two Weeks." The latter was hauntingly gorgeous folk with tinges of psychedelia. Grizzly Bear touches on those aural benchmarks on Shields, but it goes much further. "Sleeping Ute" is blues infused classic rock that George Harrison would have been proud of, with a late song tempo change that speaks to the ever-shifting and elusive nature of the record that slowly unfurls over mandatory repeat listens.
"Sleeping Ute" sets the mission statement for the album which is Grizzly Bear's attempt to not so much recreate themselves as it is to broaden the possibilities of the Grizzly Bear moniker. If "Sleeping Ute" is blues rock, its immediate follow-up, "Sleep in Rounds," is clear-eyed jangle-pop which hits on both psychedelia and a razor-sharp hook. The vibrant euphoria of the track is infectious and it gives the record an almost spiritual uplift that was previously the domain of Panda Bear or Arcade Fire. And the record never stops revealing surprises.
I touched on the spirituality of the record and it's present for nearly the whole album. With so much of indie rock presenting itself as distantly ironic or with jaded cynicism, the emotional elevation and impact of Shields is astounding. "Yet Again" sounds like what the Shins would be if James Mercer were in an especially avant-garde mood, but it manages to ring emotionally true. Immediately, they follow that up with "A Simple Answer" which is best described as Young the Giant meets Gotye if that's even possible. Shields is an avant-pop tour de force.
That it manages to experiment and change itself constantly over the course of the running time while maintaining Grizzly Bear's undeniable accessibility is perhaps the strongest recommendation one can make towards Shields. Grizzly Bear takes their sound in wonderful new directions while simultaneously broadening the pool of listeners that can appreciate their music.