Ah, Fugitive Visions
The pale, meaningless, non-punk-rock of Grizzly Bear.
Edward Droste of the band Grizzly Bear
Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.
It’s a melee, a madhouse, Grizzly Bear-as-usual. Down at the front the bouncers have their hands full. Where’s Edward Droste? Laid out drooling under his clavichord: One foot twitches. Daniel Rossen lurches forward and vomits precisely—aphoristically, almost—off the lip of the stage. Then he shouts “ALL COPPERS ARE BASTARDS!,” stamps on his fuzzbox, and tears into a medley from Veckatimest. The crowd bellows, surges, etc.
I jest, of course. Brooklyn’s Grizzly Bear may well brawl like butcher boys in their spare time, but on the clock they tend to keep it pale and incorporeal and non-punk-rock. They gather in misty mansions and tweak their vintage instruments. Their music is not channeled or forced narrowly and madly out of them, Cobain-style, but sort of ... secreted, ectoplasmically, from certain sacs or glands around the band organism. One of them writes this song, one of them writes that song; they communicate in brain-drone, oblique harmonies and notes left under the teapot. Yellow House (2006) creaked and fluttered antiquely: It was also bang up-to-date. Chamber-folk, rock noise, mild jazz vibes, doses of ambience, and something that sounded like a family of talented mice nibbling their way through piled-high copies of The White Album—these elements not cohering but suspended, drifting, side by side, as in the dreamlife of a tasteful iPod.
Veckatimest came next, in 2008—more confidence in the sound, more swing and less blur—and coronation as “Radiohead’s favourite band.” Which might have been expected to kill their career stone dead, but didn’t. The album reached No. 8 on the Billboard Chart: rather a sensational promotion, commercially speaking, for this kind of arty-floaty business. What were the kids getting from Grizzly Bear? Space. The psychic reverb chamber, the warm depth of possibility, that these strange and feathery-voiced boffins had conjured around their music. And was there Radiohead angst in there somewhere? Panic attacks lancing the floaty-ness? We couldn’t tell. The lyrics were partial, allusive—not that great, actually. Filtered ecstasies, mothballs in the misty mansions. Our haven on the southern point is calling us ...
And now here’s Shields, which at the moment is doing nothing for me at all, unless it be to uncover a somewhat depressing need for fixity, meaning, and riffs in the key of A. Shouldn’t I be flinging the old laurels, hailing it as Album of the Year? Let’s take it track by track and see if I can get excited.
“Sleeping Ute”: Twisty John McLaughlin guitar, gashes of pretty noise, and rogue caroming outer-space-pinball percussion. I can’t help myself, sings a plaintive Grizzly. Then it all changes gear and harpsical pluckings ensue. Those figures through the leaves, that light through the smoke. ... Ah, fugitive visions. Zzzzzz.
“Speak In Rounds”: Accelerates through quiet throb to jangling soft-rocker, performed in courtly-Californian accents, like Sir Galahad the Pure doing Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.”
“Adelma”: Negligible one-minute drone through which may be faintly discerned the sound of the drummer phoning his accountant.
“Yet Again”: Well, now this is just beautiful, a real closing-time shimmerer, draped in gorgeous chords. And at the end it all bloats dramatically with distortion, as if the instruments have risen against their players. ... Two thumbs up!
“The Hunt”: A bummer, plunks along in narcotized, subterranean fashion, recalling the more troughlike passages of Big Star’s Sister Lovers.
“A Simple Answer”: Those saints in lockstep/ Across the wasteland. ... How horribly poetic. Idle, I suppose, to dispraise the Grizzlies for not being AC/DC—but put that next to I’m hot/ And when I’m not/ I’m cold as ice and tell me how you feel.
“What’s Wrong”: Late-night bits-and-pieces jazz-clatter, murmurous moody vocals. Please make your mind up. ... Mental tethers softly twang, and I wander out of the room.
“Gun-Shy”: One could dance to this, cautiously. John Cheever plays cowbell.
“Half-Gate”: A grand and proper song, straight from the shuddering hymnals of Grizzly Bear. Epic reach, lovely singing. More of this, please.
“Sun in Your Eyes”: I must salute the drummer—he moves the sound around superbly. The song is inert, though, wafting and chiming in a state of wholly complacent beauty. The curse of Grizzly Bear.
OK, kids, I’m stopping there. Enough of my senile petulance. Grizzly Bear is meant for other ears—for yours, perhaps, ardent listener. Leave me with my hot water bottle and my Nashville Pussy CDs. Until next time.
James Parker is a contributing editor at the Atlantic.