Grizzly Bear Is Back, As Good And Idiosyncratic As Ever, On The New ‘Painted Ruins’

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.

But Painted Ruins is still a Grizzly Bear record, which means that “Mourning Sound” isn’t all that reflective of the rest of the album. More representative is “Losing All Sense,” which in another time would’ve surely riled up the “why can’t this prog-folk band be more punk?” crowd. Actually, the first 60 seconds of “Losing All Sense” could almost pass for a post-punk homage — the guitars are choppy, the bass vamps on a danceable groove, and the drums are prominent and powerful. Then those choirboy harmonies magically appear, and the time signature down-shifts to a twinkly dirge accented with sci-fi synths, and we’re squarely back in conventionally unconventional Grizzly Bear territory.

It might be hard to remember that a band as willfully difficult as Grizzly Bear once qualified as pop music — or almost-pop, anyway. The band’s 2009 breakthrough Veckatimest was a confident flirtation with the mainstream, spawning the popular favorite, “Two Weeks,” and garnering support from Jay-Z, who at the time time publicly wished that indie rock would “force hip-hop to make better music.” (How interesting that Jay-Z and his sister-in-law Solange apparently never got the memo — issued primarily by Caucasian music critics — about Grizzly Bear’s oppressive whiteness.) But by the time of Shields, the band’s thorniest and most underrated LP, Grizzly Bear was back to following their own idiosyncratic muse, right as indie’s art-rock wing became an after-thought amid the underground’s wholesale embrace of Top 40 pop.

While Droste might wonder whether listeners weaned on streaming will have the patience for Painted Ruins, Grizzly Bear remains committed to the song-as-puzzle, in which weirdly beautiful vocals articulate weirdly beautiful melodies over weirdly beautiful instrumental beds before finally coalescing into a coherent whole in the final moments. “It’s chaos, but it works,” Daniel Rossen sings on the surging, twisty-turny “Four Cypresses,” but he’s being modest. Chaos is rarely as meticulously rendered as it is on a Grizzly Bear record.

If there’s a change to Grizzly Bear on Painted Ruins, it’s a sense of alienation from current culture that pervades the lyrics — not the toxic strain that has sullied albums by some of Grizzly Bear’s aging contemporaries, but rather a more grounded, sweetly melancholic feeling that’s common among the newly middle-aged, once it’s been decided to leave the excitement of the city for the peace and quiet of the suburbs. It’s a moment when you finally accept adulthood, which can be a scary process or a liberating one.

Painted Ruins captures Grizzly Bear at a transitional point between those poles. Many songs contain allusions to movement, both physical and spiritual. Painted Ruins can be read as a divorce record, particularly the songs written by Droste, whose marriage ended in 2014. (From “Mourning Sound”: “I’m holing away / do it all the time / let love age / and watch it burn out and die.”) But even the “love gone wrong” laments seem to have dual meaning as allegories for growing up as a person or as a band. On the stately album closer “Sky Took Hold,” the band harmonizes on a central question about self-identity: “Who am I beneath the surface / hiding out so long inside my mind?” But no matter the confusion of the lyrics, Grizzly Bear sounds as assured as ever musically. Perhaps holing up is precisely what this singular band needed to maintain its unsullied, one-of-a-kind point of view.