Grizzly Bear’s 2009 baroque-pop breakout “Two Weeks” was effortlessly effective. Example: At one point, a friend’s three-year-old son, upon spotting a Volkswagen anywhere on the streets of Brooklyn, would immediately sing “Ohhhho! Whooaaao! Whooooaaaho! And for better or worse, that effortlessness became the Brooklyn group’s defining characteristic. On their beautiful if vague fourth studio album, Shields, there’s no hook as naturally infectious. Though the band’s skill with poised release remains intact. The result is so streamlined that it’s more difficult to clutch at its pleasures. First and foremost, they have stripped back those honeyed, choral Beach Boy harmonies the same way a brownstone homeowner might expose the brick walls and original wood floors. Almost immediately, the grain of both Edward Droste’s and Daniel Rossen’s voices are foregrounded and tactile in the mix to an unfamiliar degree. On 2006’s Yellow House and 2009’s Veckatimest, they were distinct instruments: Droste’s mid-range assured and dulcet, able to glide elegantly upwards into a falsetto and back; Rossen’s reedier timbre more earthy, tremulous yet fortified. Each songwriter’s vocal contribution was distinguishable at a distance.
Yet one of the uncanny aspects of Shields is how this sonic distinction dissolves at the edges. The band, with Droste and Rossen no longer confined to their own songs, share songwriting credits, and voices bleed into one another during “What’s Wrong.” On the glorious crest of “A Simple Answer,” its most stirring moment occurs after Rossen’s voice fades and Droste’s rises, the two converging on the line “No wrong no right / Just do whatever you like” (a sentiment sure to appeal to Crowley devotees). A similar hand-off occurs on “Half Gate,” revealing the band at their most ineffable: the strings surge, Christopher Bear’s drums thunder, and Rossen sings of “some great beyond,” the music denoting just such a utopia.
And it’s five or six times through “Speak in Rounds” — building up from Bear’s prenatal heartbeat drums and Chris Taylor’s chord-organ combers toward a thrilling velocity — before you realize that the rasp on the verses emanates from Droste and the keening chorus from Rossen, their personalities converging to the point where identity blurs. The song slides immediately into the murk of orchestral strings and brass on interlude “Adelma,” before veering into Droste’s sterling “Yet Again,” which has its luster encroached upon by guitar distortion at song’s end. Throughout, Grizzly Bear sully and scuff up their meticulous sound just enough, like choirboys taking up smoking behind the church.
To hear the band tell it, this one was about letting down their guard, allowing imperfections and blemishes to remain. For plaintive closer “Sun in Your Eyes,” you can almost hear them opening the piano lid, the sketch turning into a masterwork before your ears. But while they’ve eschewed the fussy arrangements that dictated stretches of Veckatimest, lyrically they remain as emotionally ineffable as ever. Rossen sings of a “vision dark and cloaked, and those figures through the leaves, and that light through the smoke” on opener “Sleeping Ute,” of a state where nothing is easily apprehended. In this dislocated purgatory, the sky stares back, shadows are unseen, saints cross the wasteland, the sand is blinding, words are left unsaid, feelings left unspoken.
The 2012 albums from the borough’s (and indie rock’s) Big Three — Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear — have served as correctives to their 2009 zeitgeists. With DPs’ Swing Lo Magellan and AC’s Centipede Hz, both entities put ground between themselves and their “hits” (“Stillness is the Move” and “My Girls,” respectively), avoiding the same sounds and blueprints for those successes. Lumped together as a whole, all three albums make no attempt to transcend their previous highs, preferring instead to circumscribe them. Which remains indie rock’s métier to a fault: to not build higher, to always scale back. It’s not the “push back” that Grizzly Bear fan Jay-Z might have envisioned for the genre when he said that indie rock might “push hip-hop back a little bit” (if anything, it’s EDM that shoved everyone else aside). “Speak, don’t confide,” Droste sings on “Yet Again,” and there are times on Shields when you long for the inverse. Beautiful as Grizzly Bear is, they remain an emotionally cloistered lover, willing only to speak in vagaries, never of concrete emotional needs.