“In pop, the year 2009 will be mostly remembered for the death of Michael Jackson. But in recherché rock circles, 2009 will long be recalled as a hell of a year for the Brooklyn art-house band. Three groups released landmark records marking high points in their careers. Animal Collective issued the shamanic Merriweather Post Pavilion, the eclectic Dirty Projectors released their Bitte Orca, and Grizzly Bear completed their journey from loose-ranging, lo-fi experimentalists to chamber pop phenomenon with the lovely Veckatimest. These previously ornery little outfits suddenly became the bands du jour. Cumulatively this was the annus mirabilis of what we might call Pitchfork pop.”
Thanks, Kitty Empire, and since you’re a little too kind on Centipede Hz and Swing Lo Magellan, I’ll take it from here. Apparently, writing melodies (or lyrics, even) anywhere near as engaging as “My Girls” or “Summertime Clothes” was too much for Animal Collective, and they reverted back to their own asses for 2012’s Centipede Hz, while Swing Lo Magellan seemed so normal for a band that made “Stillness is the Move” (and funnily enough, the moments on Swing Lo that were left-field were also its most annoying ones). These bands regressed, and while Veckatimest seemed like it “completed” Grizzly Bear’s “journey” at the time, Shields asserts that it had only just begun.
Or, to put it in a sweeping declaration, this is the best rock album of 2012. And make no mistake, Shields rocks: “Sleeping Ute” is a storm of electric guitars, later borrowing the psychedelic synth undertones that’s reminiscent of the best progressive rock bands (at the 1:35 mark); “Speak in Rounds” and “Half Gate” both enter a visceral climax and the former proves that sometimes acoustic guitars can rock a lot louder than their electric brethren (something I haven’t heard so convincingly in decades); the coda of “Yet Again” being the loudest this band has ever gone; the twinkles of “Gun-Shy” sounding like something Nigel Godrich would cook up for Radiohead back when they were an alternative rock band; “Sun in Your Eyes” using dynamic shifts like you haven’t heard since 1991 (Nevermind or Spiderland; y’know, rock albums). And then there’s Christopher Bear, who lays down a lyrical drumming if the jangly keyboard wasn’t enough to grab you throughout “A Simple Answer” that makes the 6-minute song feel like half its time and whose splashes and drumrolls make sure “What’s Wrong” and “Half Gate,” respectively, go to where they need to (watching him bang them out in one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen was enough empirical evidence to assert my opening thesis). To call this band at this point in time just a folk band is to cling to umbrellas. And if it is a folk album, fine, it’s the best folk album of 2012.
Moreover, recall that the band’s best songs usually had nothing to do with the genre (the psychedelic “Knife,” the doo-woppin’ “Two Weeks,” the jazzy “Southern Point”). Or, to put it in another sweeping declaration, this is a collection of the band’s best songs – the band’s best album. The only song I can do without is “The Hunt,” where the melody isn’t nearly as affecting as the two songs that sandwich it (and absolutely no vocal harmonies are employed to distract), and the song just presents these drums that sound like they were recorded underwater and hopes that’s enough to carry it (which are used again on “What’s Wrong” anyway). But even then, I’m aware that “The Hunt” is boring at worst, whereas Veckatimest had “Hold Still” and Yellow House had the sludgy-shit codas of “Lullabye” and “Little Brother” as its lowest points. No, not even “Adelma,” the minute long interlude, is a throwaway, and I’m always utterly shocked when the crescendo of “Speak in Rounds” drops you into an ambient bubble bath and it seems completely natural. The band is simply more ambitious than ever. Their arrangements are brimming such that though you’ll fall in love with them immediately because of their melodies, you’ll keep coming back because there’s something buried somewhere that you didn’t notice the first time, and whereas their best songs always had a lot of movement – like calm breezes touching your skin while on mushrooms – the movement within Shields is often urgent, anxious. “It overflows, it always runs,” indeed.
I mean, in the same way you don’t expect “Adelma” to follow “Speak in Rounds,” you don’t expect “Sleeping Ute” – that’s made a point of starting big and getting bigger – to drop you off in an acoustic, finger-picked coda. Elsewhere, the band moves from instrument to instrument (see, specifically, from 1:18 to 1:38) in the first half of “What’s Wrong,” and in the instrumental second half (starting at the 3:35 mark), whenever every time the band seems to finally settle on a melody, they discard it for a new one, while new bursts of melody are introduced in “A Simple Plan” (the 1:43 mark) and “Gun-Shy” (the 2:55 mark) – this fear of settling down screams the opposite of complacency. Yes, I acknowledge that though the band makes a big point on being more conscious about the lyrics this time around than meaningless mantras (Daniel Rossen: “We’ve […] made a point of making sure we’re focusing a lot more on the lyrics, so they fit in correctly and represent the song right”), they’re just as inconsequential as before (though I do like the choruses of “Speak in Rounds,” “Step down just once, learn how to be alone,” and the kiss-off of “Sun in Your Eyes,” finally gaining the courage to leave what’s been holding you back). But even so, the singers sing them with enough eloquence that you can attribute meaning to these songs if you want to. If you don’t, whatever, move on. And though the band is less interested in vocal harmonies this time around, they’re still abound, the faraway screams in “Half-Gate” (again: urgent, anxious) coloring in the choruses of “Yet Again,” the coda of “A Simple Answer” and making damn sure the final instance of the chorus of “Sun in Your Eyes” is larger than the ones before it and worth every second of its 7-minute runtime.