PAINTED RUINS by Grizzly Bear
Genre: Indie Rock
Favorite Tracks: “Losing All Sense,” “Glass Hillside,” “Sky Took Hold”
Several times in 2017 we’ve been confronted with an alternative rock band that is a decade (if not more) into their career, making music at a high caliber for a music landscape that has, by and large, moved on. It’s a confounding problem to have for a few reasons. Bands like Spoon, The Shins, and Broken Social Scene have each delivered solid releases for artists that have been around for over 20 years. But the degree to which we give these albums their just dues is heavily influenced by the culture that surrounds these releases. The reality that a lot of these bands are facing is that the brand of indie rock that they’ve cut their teeth on for literal decades is the furthest it’s ever been from its apex.
While much of this might be due to artist fatigue, and a lot of it has to do with the indie sphere’s shifting tastes, a growing part of the problem is that in 2017, no one else sounds like these bands. An artist like Spoon, who had plenty of stage-five clingers riding their coat tails circa-2006, have emerged as an institutional and wholly original rock outfit, making music that sounds like no one else but Spoon. At what point does that artist’s sound become tired from its own successful undoing?
All this is to say: I don’t know what we should do with PAINTED RUINS, Grizzly Bear’s first album in five years. It’s certainly not the band’s best work, but it’s a good album by an act that sounds like quite literally no one else, and an act who, pound for pound, can put their previous discography up against almost any other contemporary and come out victorious. VECKATIMEST and SHIELDS are absolutely stunning powerhouse releases, and YELLOW HOUSE is as close to perfect as an album can come, so at some point something had to give, right?
Whilst listening to the singles, I continually found myself doing what most fans do, which is weigh this material against everything that came before it and every time the band came up short. But find me another song this year, neigh, from the last five years, that creates something that sounds remotely like “Three Rings.” The recording of the drums is literal perfection, the guitars bounce off each other with a uniquely flippant intensity, and those vocals, my god, the vocals! Auteur theory has to count for something, right?
I suppose I’m asking a lot of questions because I don’t have the answers. PAINTED RUINS, in a vacuum, is amazing. It’s Grizzly Bear’s cleanest sounding record to date, and the band continues to embrace new sonic territories, specifically reigning in the raw chaos of SHIELDS to create their fullest, most polished, sound yet. PAINTED RUINS is also quick to get to the point, mostly avoiding slow burners in favor of bold rock songs; five albums in, Grizzly Bear have delicately phased out the stripped-down, folksy elements of their music, choosing to unironically embrace being a rock band. Surprisingly, the transition actually works quite well. Songs like “Mourning Sound,” “Four Cypresses,” and closer “Sky Took Hold” are basically full on “alternative rock,” a sonic transition that reminds me of when blues duo The Black Keys pivoted out of blues and into widespread alt rock with their breakout ATTACK AND RELEASE—sure, their music felt a tad overproduced, but that was the goal.
And even lyrically, Grizzly Bear remain fascinating. In spite of a five year hiatus filled with topics suited to Ed Dorste’s outspokenness, the lyrics on PAINTED RUINS are small and localized, most of the time never leaving Daniel Rossen’s “Wasted Acres.” Grizzly Bear have perfected blunt vagueness over their careers, and they haven’t lost a step here. From Rossen’s upstate New York home, we see the mundane chores and routine emotional acrobatics we have to go through to survive every day unfold. PAINTED RUINS leans heavily on Rossen for lead vocals, which makes sense given the songwriting, but nonetheless the album would have been better served with more of Dorste’s angelic crooning to counter Rossen’s smooth but relatively straightforward tenor.
Even in spite of how good this record is, PAINTED RUINS failed to really grab hold of me the way other projects by this band have, riding mostly on the merits of how good Grizzly Bear are rather than how good this album is. Crunchy guitar tones, extremely polished drum recordings, and vocals that are as forward in the mix as ever, Grizzly Bear’s first major label record is an admirable attempt at making a mainstream record. PAINTED RUINS should be commended for that—it’s not easy to make that transition successfully. The highs here are outweighed by the routineness of these songs, never quite embracing the genuine quirks and honest imperfections of previous recordings. For a band whose sound was built on a delicate, intricate, and oftentimes quiet havoc, their evolution over the course of five albums is logical but less compelling than it was at the start. PAINTED RUINS is a good album by a band who shouldn’t be penalized for evolving a sound space that only they live in, and by any other band’s standards it would be a watershed release, but for the fans it should be taken with a grain of salt.