More than once in my life, I have been called a “hater”. That is only half-fair. It’s true that once I find out which direction the bandwagon is headed, I run the other way, but I prefer the term contrarian.
“Hater,” to me, implies an impulse toward negativity with no end goal. I am less a hater and more someone who hides my love from the world. I guard my deepest praise and affection closely because I want it to mean something when I finally unleash it.
It is with all sincerity, and perhaps without coincidence then, that I say I have fallen for a Grizzly Bear album entitled Shields, which music critics have called “guarded”, “inscrutable”, and a “puzzle”. I love this album, and it is as much for the pleasure I derive listening to it as it is for the possibilities it represents to me, both as a musician and a music fan.
The last time I felt this strongly about music being released in the here-and-now was with – surprise of surprises – Grizzly Bear’s last album Veckatimest. It was my first introduction to the band’s music and its bold contradictions caught me completely off-guard. It was sparse and readymade, yet lush and polished at once. It alternated between the solitary and the anthemic with ease, and overflowed with melodic richness. It was the kind of sloppy that only excellent musicians can pull off. And it felt like an album. You remember albums, don’t you?
As I had already fallen for Grizzly Bear, I was fully prepared to be disappointed by Shields, and awaited its arrival with as much dread as anticipation (I’ve been hurt before, you see). As the noise around the band swelled to epic levels thanks to Veckatimest’s critical and commercial success, the band’s path to future successes seemed to narrow to a point where it more resembled a tightrope.
If they were to fall too far to one side – the side opened up by a North American tour with Radiohead and a spot in Billboard’s top 10 – Grizzly Bear would risk becoming rock cliché: style over substance, ‘selling-out’, and forgotten fire. Falling to the other side – by withdrawing into reactionary and self-imposed obscurity – means the band would give up their chance to bring new ideas to the masses that wouldn’t go looking for them otherwise.
Ultimately, Grizzly Bear decided to walk the tightrope. In the end they made like circus performers and drove a motorcycle over it.
They make it look easy, too. Shields is not a thematic sequel to Veckatimest, but it is a logical continuation. It gives one the impression that the band could release an album this rich and complete every three or four years for the next twenty.
The music isn’t exactly ‘inscrutable’, but people don’t know what to call it, so they call it ‘indie rock’ – a term which, at least at this point in history, doesn’t seem to mean much of anything. We do this to avoid calling it what it is, the thing that we’re afraid to say, even though it’s staring us in the face. Grizzly Bear makes pop music.
The New Pop
Over the last few decades, “Pop” has become the dirty word of music. It implies a certain vulgarity and baseness devised by marketers and puppet-masters. When we think of Pop, we think of Ke$ha brushing her teeth in the morning with whiskey, we think of Christian crooner turned sexpot Katy Perry, we think of Lady Gaga covered in meat. Grizzly Bear is probably the last band we think of when we think of pop, if we think of them at all. But maybe they should be higher on the list.
Calling Grizzly Bear’s music “pop” seems strange only in the manufactured context of what most readily comes to our minds. Thinking about it in a classic sense however, Grizzly Bear’s music clearly relies heavily on hooks, melodies, and strong harmonies. It has verses, choruses, and bridges, and these things are put together in a way that appeals not just to a handful of friends, but to millions. That sounds like pop music to me.
In fact, Grizzly Bear’s easiest parallel is to one of America’s most beloved pop bands, The Beach Boys. Even when Brian Wilson was losing his mind and the band and its music were at their most disjointed, The Beach Boys never strayed too far from their bread and butter of four-part vocal harmonies and pop structures. Grizzly Bear continues in that tradition, albeit with occasional screeching guitars thrown in. The music may take you elsewhere, but it in the end it always brings you home.
To call Shields ‘pop music’ does not debase their inventiveness, but raises the standards of what pop can be. It opens the spectrum for listeners, and removes the stigma around what we can make as musicians.
When, as music fans, we start looking at pop music as more than one-dimensional, we stop looking for love in all the wrong places and stop accepting cheap one-night stands with the chart flavors of the week. When, as musicians, we see that pop music can be original, provocative, and pleasing to the ear all at once, we can challenge ourselves to pursue all three rather settling for one or the other. And we can aspire to make love to our audience instead of just… well… you know… pleasing ourselves.
Everything all at once
Shields is the blueprint for this new pop landscape: a wide array of colors and textures, deep and nuanced, mixed and matched without regard to convention, shifting and fluid over the course of the album or of a song.
As we drift through the psych-garage pop of opener “Sleeping Ute”, booming drums, flute-like synthesizers, and field recordings flutter in and out like obscure spices atop a familiar dish, before dissolving into an unsettling coda of flamenco-like acoustic guitar and isolated vocals.
On “Speak in Rounds” Shields immediately shifts up-tempo into something that almost resembles new wave folk-punk – with a few horns for good measure – and then comes crashing down into the ambient drones of the instrumental interlude “Adelma”. The album’s second single, “Yet Again”, begins as a dark and sparse surf song before transitioning to a shimmering chorus and ending in oversaturated psych noise.
After the lo-fi ballad “The Hunt”, the band returns to center with “A Simple Answer”, which is, for the fist three-quarters of the song at least, their most straight-ahead and joyous pop endeavor since “Two Weeks”. The final quarter flips the rolling piano march that underlies the song into something foreboding, while a dirge of droning synths and cavernous drums buoys singer/guitarist Daniel Rossen’s vocals of “No wrong or right. Just do whatever you like”. As long as it resonates in ears, hearts, and minds, the band takes its own advice.
“What’s Wrong” introduces yet another flavor to the palette with its jazz noir and slithering strings, as Rossen and singer/ founder Ed Droste play good cop/bad cop with their vocal lines and harmonies. But it’s clear that the band understands the push and pull of an album as well as they do the shape of a pop song. As “What’s Wrong” dissolves piece by piece, we get the cue that we are on the back slope of the hill.
“Gun-Shy” provides a simple, 70s lite-FM groove as a respite, before ramping up again for the theatrical “Half Gate”, a song that – like many others in Grizzly Bear’s catalog – – crescendos into something that could double as the score to a Broadway musical about pioneers traveling West. Before the dust from the wagons settles, we hear the beginning lone piano of 7-minute closer “Sun In Your Eyes”, winking at us with swagger from atop its perch as the band’s own answer to “Purple Rain”. In the end, we’ve gone around the world of popular music with Grizzly Bear in 48 minutes.
(Not so) Easy Listening
One of the few criticisms I have heard leveled at this band and at this album is that they contain simply too much information, that there is perhaps too much going on and too much challenge to our senses.
This is a criticism that makes sense in the context of what has come to pass for modern pop, but it’s not one I can understand within the context of discovering music that might stay in our lives for more than five minutes.
It seems to me like a call to keep our standards low and our attention spans short, to forget that our greatest art is remembered specifically for its challenges and its provocation, not for being generally pleasant and inoffensive. We fall endlessly in love with that which gets under our skin, not with those things that are merely cute.
To be sure, there is some medicine to take with Shields, a few rough edges that will always be a part of Grizzly Bear’s music, and will always disqualify them in certain conversations about pop music. But we only find the center by knowing where the edges are, and we only appreciate it by venturing out to those edges.
Even at its most chaotic and dissonant, there is not a note on Shields that is played by accident, not a sound created without intent, and never a lush harmonic convergence more than a few measures away.
This is the mastery of Grizzly Bear and their “new” pop music: the motorcycle across the tightrope. Riding the line between familiar and predictable, between beautiful and snarling, between being light and being without substance, between tension and release. As we listen to Shields as fans, we are not the ones trying to solve a puzzle; they are.
Long after the assemblage of sounds on Shields ceases to move me as much as it does now, I will still appreciate the album’s existence. It echoes my personal motto as a musician, although Grizzly Bear execute it with far more skill than I might ever hope to: Never give the people what they want; give them what they didn’t know they wanted yet.
Without any pretension, Shields tells the world that by accepting complexity, nuance and mystery as welcome additions to the palette of pop music, our enjoyment actually becomes simpler and less restrained. The same visceral logic that defenders of bubblegum pop use can now be flipped on its head- when they ask “how can this be pop???”, tell them “I just like it! It just feels good!” And when the thing that makes us feel good is also the thing that challenges us, inspires us, and makes us think, that’s when we fall in love.