Artist: Grizzly Bear
Genre: Indie, folk rock
Label: Warp Records
This album is quite infuriating. In the course of my listening, I’ve spun from abject hatred to mild indifference to partial enjoyment, then back to hatred and then enjoyment again. Basically, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Every now and then I feel like it’s on the cusp of some magical musical inspiration, and then there are other times when I sort of come to and don’t even realise it’s been on. It is possible that my minimal familiarity with the band has contributed to this, and yet there’s a persistent sense of intrigue here that does compel one to keep listening. Like a more understated form of riotous post-hardcore, this is like oddball Beatnik poetry set to music.
I say riotous post-hardcore as some of the more mystical, arching twists in this album make me think of the likes of mewithoutYou. Not in that they’re musically similar, but in the aching, lonely complexity of the words and musical arrangements. That said, it’s not always that there is actual complexity to either, but something about the way everything is realised makes it seem layered and nuanced. It can be disappointing then to really attempt to absorb the tracks and find little more than lengthy espousals on random topics, which is where the abject hatred comes in. But I think, overall, I can grudgingly describe Shields as rewarding.
‘Hushed’ seems like the best word for describing this music. It bubbles along quietly, without anything that could be deemed remotely intense, and yet there’s an atmospheric grace to some tracks that’s entirely absorbing. There are hints of magic and sprawling wonder in “A Simple Answer.” The music has a pervasive innocence and joy that seems to look at the world through eager, if shy and impatient eyes. Objectively, this track could be considered quite turgid and dull but it’s in this simple show of eloquence that it makes an impact. Similarly, “What’s Wrong?” illustrates the radiance that can derive from a little detail instead of something shocking and perverse. So in this track, it’s the shrug of a percussion instrument or steady ebb and flow of a synth line. This creates rhythm in a subtle way and gives the song a lofty beauty. It goes on to unveil a seedy underbelly with the influx of a noir-esque stealth towards the end, as piano and drums combine with eerie backing effects to augment the atmosphere.
Other songs make a more forward pursuit of your attention. “Gun-Shy” is slinky and twisting; “Half Gate” wilier, more aware and dangerous. “Sun in Your Eyes” is inactive for much of its running time, but this is broken by brief periods of rushing lucidity that work marvellously. There is a sustained sense of enchantment to these moments, explored through touching instrumental interludes. It’s not in a rush to lay its soul bare and is probably slightly overlong but when it comes to it is bold and jubilant, with the ending particularly solid.
The flip-side of this is that the music can seem excessively ordinary, with lengthy running times labouring to make a point. It’s quite easy then to sense a kind of pompous undertone to some of the more languid, burgeoning tracks. These seem to drag themselves out or aim for a deliberately elusive strangeness that alienates rather than intrigues. On balance, Shields seems to err more on the side of convincing than not, but there is a lingering self-importance to much of it that gets on the nerves. “The Hunt” is a good example of this, or even opening track “Sleeping Ute,” as not every grandiose statement is worth the while.
Shields is a deceptively beguiling affair, though it may take a few listens to really appreciate. When it opens its arms to listeners there is a great deal to love about its mysterious storytelling and extravagant musical arrangements, but it does seem a fair bet to suggest that others will wonder what all the fuss is about. This is polarising stuff, but if you do fall for it, you’ll likely fall hard.
Review written by Grace Duffy