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Grizzly Bear, ‘Shields’ – Album Review

Grizzly Bear - Shields
Warp Records

I’ve listened to ‘Shields’ more than any other album released this year.

Grizzly Bear‘s previous three albums demanded intensive attention from knowledgeable listeners. And by design, ‘Horn of Plenty,’ ‘Yellow House’ and ‘Veckatimest’ rewarded an audience willing to put in the time to separate the layers of knotted, cryptic pop.

So it’s only right to approach ‘Shields’ expecting the album’s discreet joys to reveal themselves over time, right?

In the three years following the release of the fantastic ‘Veckamist,’ there was purportedly a lot of teeth gnashing during Grizzly Bear’s studio sessions. The band is said to have scrapped an entire album they weren’t pleased with before spending a couple of years writing and perfecting the 48 minutes of ‘Shields’

And it shows. ‘Shields’ is as overwrought, over-thought and fussy an album as you’ll hear all year.

On first listen, there’s nothing that jumps out to catch the ear or so much as raise an eyebrow. On repeated listens, there’s just nothing entertaining enough to make the album likable and nothing heady or challenging enough to make it intriguing. It’s a shame that, in spite of Grizzly Bear’s best intentions, this is the result.

I’ve listened to it on headphones and through fantastic speakers. I’ve listened to it while cooking, sleeping and mowing the lawn. Determined to like it, I’ve listened to it a handful of times in pitch-dark sensory deprivation. I listened to it on repeat during an eight-hour drive, and all it did was make the drive seem that much longer.

Now, this isn’t a Geraldo-in-Al Capone’s-vault scenario here. Arcade Fire fans will be happy to hear ‘A Simple Answer,’ and people who are into Coldplay will enjoy ‘Yet Again,’ as both songs find Grizzly Bear mercilessly aping those other bands.

Elsewhere, the album is meticulously stacked with intricate textures that hook themselves around Grizzly Bear’s signature baroque voicings and time-signature experiments that often seem suited for New York’s Village Vanguard jazz club. It sounds a lot cooler on paper than it does on the album.

Grizzly Bear’s music has always veered toward ostentatious, but in the past, their left-field, urbane Americana was consistently inspired and beautiful — some of the best music of the last decade. While this is an admirable attempt at making a big, thoughtful album, we’re ultimately left with the sound of a great band losing itself in the studio. It sucks to say, but even after dozens of listens, ‘Shields’ falls flat time and time again.

Don’t believe the hype.

5 out of 10 rating

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