Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins – Album Review by Zara Hedderman
From an outsider’s perspective five years is a substantial gap between albums. Such an absence is felt particularly when a band pertains a profile akin to Grizzly Bear following the release of their fourth album, Shields. Ensuing tour commitments, subsequent burnout and phases of personal readjustment (divorcing, having children, relocating from New York to Los Angeles) consumed the band in the intervening period between Shields and Painted Ruins, the reacquaintance with the beloved off-kilter rock band.
Their return is, perhaps, even more poignant as they reemerge with new material concurrently to some of their contemporaries, notably Arcade Fire. Both bands made their debut in 2004 and have released their fifth album thirteen years later. That is where the common ground ends, however. From the moment the fuzzed synth and rising clarinet lead us to Daniel Rossen’s calm vocals on Painted Ruins’ stunning opener, Wasted Acres it instantly feels like Grizzly Bear have matured with their music. The song sets a strong standard, it is seductive in tone and excites the listener to experience the eleven tracks. Moments after the intro ends we’re thrust into the thunderous beat of Mourning Sound, an immediate contrast. The coupling of these songs, especially as a first impression, demonstrates the sophistication in Grizzly Bear’s diversity. They give an insight into how Droste, Taylor, Bear and Rossen approach a blank page, entering into a fresh phase coming from the previous record and moving forward from the success of mainstream singles by deviating from familiarity and thus returning refreshed; sounding developed but not entirely different.
Ed Droste described the creative process and overall experience making Painted Ruins as being very different, “more fractured” than previous albums due to the fact that three quarters of the band are living on the West Coast. The geographical distance between the members meant that the time they spent in the studio writing and recording was precious, presumably requiring them to be more concise and forthright in how they worked. This focus is evident in the songs. Chris Taylor, once again, produced everything on Painted Ruins. His contribution to the record even trickling into new territories for him as a member of the band by writing and singing lead vocals (a first for him) on the track, Systole. Taylor’s production is impeccable; the forty-eight minutes escape rapidly from the listener’s grasp via the flawless flow from one song to the next. The tightness of the instrumentation and the ornate qualities in how the various sounds are layered with Droste and Rossen’s vocals (the former singing in a slightly different register to what we are used to due to recently having surgery on his sinuses), culminating in a much broader and richer sound.
Grizzly Bear are consistently commended for their textural tones; prompt drum rolls, gleaming guitar strums punctuating melodies with disparity, alluring lurking synths and smooth bass lines that typically place them in the realm of chamber pop-rock. Each instrumental composition has a specific role in Painted Ruins, awakening a different part of the listener’s psyche from both the song’s lyrical content which delves into social issues like homelessness and also personal strife born from the disintegration of relationships, and the musicality. There is constantly something to uncover and be surprised by on Painted Ruins; a rogue sumptuous chord shift (Neighbours) or synth laden intro met with an irregularly timed drum beat (Four Cypresses), the unexpected elements allude to a sense of displacement or disfunction, and while some of those moments occurred accidentally works impeccably well. These facets make it easy and enjoyable to become totally enveloped by this album.
The eleven songs co-exist harmoniously. It is rare to find an album that is as instantly satisfying as Painted Ruins, even the weaker songs, Losing All Sense and the slow burning guitar picking of Glass Hillside flourish to reveal intricate melodies that grow quickly. Closer Sky Took Hold is the perfect closer, it is defiantly confident and captivating right to the very final moments where the tone mellows into lengthy and repetitive synth lines that complement those heard at the very beginning, the circle is complete.
Grizzly Bear have entered their next album cycle with an impressively strong record, one that doesn’t lose it’s initial spark even after countless listens.
5.Losing All Sense
11.Sky Took Hold