You can forgive the members of Grizzly Bear for feeling uncertain about how their first album in five years, Painted Ruins, will be received. “Is anyone listening?” Ed Droste mused in a recent Spin interview. “Is anyone reading?” Clearly, the peak of arty, Brooklyn-based indie has passed in the time since 2012’s Shields .Back then, Grizzly Bear was grouped with Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors as signifiers of not just a music genre, but an entire “hipster” subculture. For several years in the late ’00s and the early ’10s, Grizzly Bear’s music was freighted with significance, which simultaneously elevated the band’s records in cultural importance and weighed them down with whatever negative connotations critics wanted to pin on Grizzly Bear’s audience.
Painted Ruins, however, probably won’t have to withstand that sort of baggage. It gets to be “just” a Grizzly Bear record, a distinction that cuts both ways. Some will no doubt fret that Grizzly Bear is not as “meaningful” in 2017, though no longer being a signifier does have its advantages. Grizzly Bear used to be a target for those looking to gripe about how modern indie was “non-punk-rock” with “no apparent links to black American music.” It’s always odd to criticize a band or artist for failing to be something they never set out to be. (Knocking Grizzly Bear for not being punk is like whining about Carly Rae Jepsen not covering Cannibal Corpse.) But that is the burden of the spotlight. You forfeit the right to be judged by how well you execute your own ideas; right or wrong, you must contend with all that is projected on to you.
About now it should be noted that Painted Ruins is a very good Grizzly Bear record, particularly for those who have enjoyed previous Grizzly Bear records on their own challenging terms. It is immaculate, a little fussy, ornate, dense, occasionally convoluted, and throughly lovely. At times, Painted Ruins even seems “modern,” in the pop-centric ways that we’ve come to understand modernity — the bottom end is little heavier, the choruses are somewhat more prominent, and the tempos are slightly zippier. The album’s radio single, “Mourning Sound,” is the most propulsive Grizzly Bear has ever dared to sound, with a slinky bassline that vaguely recalls New Order.