, September 19th, 2012 06:07
Enter the Cherubim. It's not the name of Grizzly Bear's new album, but after producing three albums of ecclesiastical (in tone, if not belief) psyche pop, it wouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone if the band had emerged from their Brooklyn dens with a ludicrously twee name like Enter the Cherubim attached to their latest. They haven't, thankfully.
It has been three years since the release of the US top 10 charting Veckatimest and they're now officially back with the release of Shields. The Grizzlies return at a peculiar time for the US and UK indie world that's long supported them - as Quietus co-pilot Luke Turner recently outlined in this piece. Stateside, the crest of chill-bros and lo-fi brats has finally smashed against the rocks, with the former left flapping around inside their navels for a fresh YouTube rip, while the latter have almost all proven themselves to be nothing more than junior auxiliary members of the Blink 182 brigade, content spitting out "gnarly" pop-punk riffs outside their local Taco Bell while slurping Mountain Dew in the hot suburban sun. Even Grizzly Bear's more like-minded Stateside peers are increasingly to be found floundering. The once mighty Animal Collective's digital hippie shapes collapsed in a squiggly, techno tie-dyed heap on this year's Centipde Hz. And let's not even get started on the tortured chipmunk squeaks of Passion Pit.
In the UK, the obsession with US Pitchfork culture and the exported image of "I'm 'avin it" guitar lads is passing. The Mumfords and their tweed are still floating around, but any signs of Britpop oi Britannia, street urchin skiffle or Yorke junior wailers are buried beneath the mounds of never worn plimsolls piled high outside the back of your local Topshop.
What's now rising on both sides of the Atlantic in the shape of Factory Floor, Wild Beasts, the XX, Frank Ocean, Flying Lotus and a resurgent hip-hop scene is an embracing of life in all its complicated, messy and very now glory; a life free of television style narratives and the compulsive need to look over your shoulder and make sure everyone's watching as you sip your chai while scrawling in a Moleskine. Life simply isn't just a series of templates you select and then purchase the required accessories for - but that's exactly the kind of alt value meal conservatism that fueled the worst excesses of the last decade's retro obsession.
Grizzly Bear may not have expected it, but this is the world they now find themselves in with Shields. So the question is, which side of this fence do Grizzly Bear land on? With Brooklyn postcodes stamped on their backsides and a willingness to be photographed in the desert sporting Native American print cardigans while staring forlorn into the distance, it's difficult to not pause for a moment and find yourself wondering, in this period of cultural assessment, if Grizzly Bear are simply just another bunch of Americana-worshipping dilettantes who happened to have a few moments of brilliance (which they did) last decade.
The honest answer is no, they're not. Whether you're listening to the psychedelic choral wail of Yellow House's 'Colorado', their role reversal cover of the Crystals 'He Hit Me' or the piano stop and start of Veckatimist's 'Two Weeks', Grizzly Bear have long stood out as an American oddity. Never attempting to obfuscate their audience like Dirty Projectors and unwilling to toy with the cack-handed Lonely Planet guide to authenticity favoured by Beirut and Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear have long operated in their own space, one that's strangely familiar and accessible while still being defined by their peculiar concerns and admittedly collegiate sensibilities. In a lot of ways, the closest UK comparison to be made is with Wild Beasts, if you can imagine a less randy American version of the Kendal foursome, reared on a diet of Philip Roth and mint juleps instead of Graham Greene and pints of frothy ale.
And like Wild Beasts on last year's Smother, Shields finds Grizzly Bear hitting a more confident note, free of the youthful urge to 'show 'em what you got by tossing everything into the pot' that marked earlier albums. The Grizzly Bear of Shields is a Grizzly Bear who aren't afraid to allow the cracks to show. For most bands, this would mean an actual slowing down of their songs. In the case of Grizzly Bear, they've instead sped up on opener 'Sleeping Ute' and ditched a good part of the carefully balanced orchestration and studio layering that defined Yellow House and Veckatimest. Shields feels like Grizzly Bear at their most immediate, which is something the band have themselves acknowledged in recent interviews. You can hear that sense of the present in 'What's Wrong' or 'Half Gate's' driving rhythm. However, it doesn't mean they've abandoned their more esoteric ways for a more raucous bar band feel. You'll still find willful experimentation on the ambient interlude of 'Aldema' and the guitar squall at the end of 'Yet Again'. This is still a Grizzly Bear record, but thanks to a spin through the grinder of maturity, it's also now a Grizzly Bear that know when to hold back or let things flow in order to create an LP that connects emotionally. This was the one thing that its impressive but more technically minded predecessors often lacked.
If you spot a copy of Shields in a record shop with a sticker on it that read "Like an all boy Fleetwood Mac reared on a diet of Harry Nilsson, Van Dyke Parks and The Pixies", then you'd have a passable description of what's in store. But that simply isn't enough. Especially not now, when the crusty vintage references and lifestyle accoutrements that became the value system of music for so many years are finally giving way to something new. So, don't look to Shields for another list of mashed up indie references to trot around with like that badge you bought on Etsy. And don't look to it to serve as just another entry from a bearded bunch of Americana-loving urbanites with pretty voices embarking on a fools errand search for postcard authenticity. The men of Grizzly Bear are smarter, sharper and more interested in actual living than that, and Shields is simply their way of reminding us that we should be too.