Painted Ruins, Grizzly Bear’s fifth record and first in five years, sounds completely at ease with itself. The first few tracks teem with pastoral beauty; check the swooning, 70mm composition of “Three Rings” or the early-morning birdsong guitars of “Four Cypresses.” This has been a natural growth: The almost geological scale of 2006’s Yellow House gave way on 2009’s Veckatimest to lush, organic pastures, less focused on cathartic climaxes than ecosystems of detail, and it’s a development that continues here into a gleaming sonic opulence. Midway through, “Losing All Sense” clicks into one of the band’s wrangly, interlocking grooves, but augments it with enormous starbursts of guitar. On “Aquarian,” on the spidering “Glass Hillside,” on closer “Sky Took Hold,” the group repeatedly pulls out these reverb-drenched analog explosions of sound, offering a welcome reminder that few bands in contemporary music are as focused on the noble, yet oft-devalued task of sounding good as Grizzly Bear.
There’s something quaint about this, almost ’70s in its mindset. Grizzly Bear makes albums as genuine listening experiences, the sort of records you’d pull out to test a new set of speakers at the hi-fi store, nodding learnedly about their “brightness” and “range.” There’s also long been a sort of classic rock, studio-nerd stateliness to its compositions, recalling the meticulousness (if not the behavior) of bands like Fleetwood Mac or Steely Dan. When Grizzly Bear performs live, they’re arrayed in a straight line across the stage, and it’s sort of gobsmacking how talented each individual member is, all contributing incandescent counter-melodies and proving that they can create such a lovely sound with just, you know, guitars and shit, all in real time. On record, that can be easy to take for granted. It’s like an artisanal piece of furniture; you feel like you should be doing something nobler than eating brunch on it. Grizzly Bear makes albums that demand you do more than just throw it on in the background (even if it does make for nice brunch music).
Listened to front to back, theirs is a discography of steady, quiet evolution, a filling-in of cavernous spaces. 2004’s Horn Of Plenty was an almost ambient release, elemental in its aims, which was then shaped and formed into dramatic arrangements on Yellow House. In Christopher Bear’s drums and Chris Taylor’s counterintuitive bass lines, Veckatimest found a huge, percussive revolution. And while Shields couldn’t help but feel a tad anticlimactic after that breakthrough, it still showed the band increasingly confident in its instrumentation. Painted Ruins picks up the best threads of all of them, the rhythm section clicking with an almost post-punk intelligence and newer, thicker splashes of synthesizers imbuing the proceedings with a sci-fi sense of wonder. And yet the sum of all of this is an album no less ambient in its pleasures than the demo-like gloaming of Horn Of Plenty, creating an immaculate wall of sound built on trilling orchestras and lush glockenspiels and firecracker explosions of guitar. The ghostly quality of those early records remains; the ghosts are just louder now.
The theme of selfhood is echoed in the lyrics, too, which—for all their talk of the natural world, transience, and vague political referencing—primarily tackle the give and take of a relationship, with emphasis on the “take.” Painted Ruins turns out to be an appropriate name: Despite its overwhelming pleasantness, this is something of a breakup album, beginning as it shatters and ending once the pieces hit the ground. (Singer Ed Droste has acknowledged that his recent divorce is an emotional, if not explicit, influence.)
The morning scenes evoked throughout the album’s first half are tethered to a relationship’s quiet dissolution: “Mourning Sound” inspires thoughts of aging love, burning out and dying, while the keening, unresolved ardor of “Three Rings” pivots on the line “the morning always shows all,” suggesting a blank blue light less forgiving than the previous evening’s. Later, the toxic romance gets cast as an “invading spore growing inside of me,” which, after the near-abusive death throes of “Neighbors” and the Taylor-led “Systole,” finally gets expelled into the sky, leaving a still-standing survivor, worse for the wear, tattered but alive. These are unpleasant moments, but they’re written here with a sense of neutrality, as if the entire cycle were as organic as the turn of the seasons.
In all, Painted Ruins represents the band’s strongest compositions since Yellow House—and still, there’s something weirdly revolutionary about this kind of formalism in 2017. Toward the end of last year, indie rock went through one of its periodic existential crises, launching a wave of articles asking if indie rock was dead, and contrarily scolding the people who deigned to ask as much. (Droste’s own droll Instagrammed response: “😱.”) In the past few months, almost as if in defiance of those claims, we’ve seen a host of canonical mid-aughts bands release records reckoning with their past—Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, The Shins, Spoon, Wolf Parade, Feist, and so on—many of them following a hiatus much like the one Grizzly Bear has just returned from. And yet few of their contemporaries sound as comfortable in their own skin, or as quietly essential, as Grizzly Bear, even after the time away. Turns out sounding good is evergreen.