Grizzly Bear are, like Refused and the Strokes, one of those bands which I like but have never quite seen the hype about. Unfortunately, it’s one of those things I don’t really expect a new album to rectify, because my problem with Grizzly Bear always lay more in their overall raison-d’etre than in any failure of execution. It’s a have-your-cake-and-eat-it problem; the band is enraptured with odd chord progressions and strange harmonies, but it wants to play them on pretty instruments and gentle volumes, and the result just comes across as a little too obscure to be elegant, and a little too formless to be challenging. That said, when the band do put some weightier substance in the mix (see: the riff on “Sleeping Ute”, the chorus on “Southern Point”) the results can be quite lovely, and for what it’s worth, Painted Ruins does feel more substantial than either of its predecessors. That probably means that, on first few listening at least, I’d actually call it my favourite Grizzly Bear album, even though I’ll hang the qualifier that this might just be because it meets a few needs Grizzly Bear have notably failed to meet in the past, and that goodwill aside there may be a few babies thrown out with the bathwater.
See, Painted Ruins is without question the most straightforward Grizzly Bear album yet. You might not notice that until a few songs in – opening track “Wasted Acres” starts the album off by going from indie-folk ambience to avant-pop dissonance to black-and-white-movie-soundtrack sobriety in the space of a string quartet’s single slur – but it becomes increasingly clear as the synthesized basslines and sampled drumlines come in that we’re dealing with the strongest beats Grizzly Bear have played to. On the album’s best moments, this allows the band to ground their billowing more consistently than they’ve ever done in their career. “Four Cypresses”, “Wasted Acres,” and “Three Rings” (to name a few examples) remind me very strongly of Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, which is absolutely intended as a compliment. It also lends much needed structure to the album’s artier moments: “Glass Hillside” is lifted above the twee quirk-riding I’ve railed against in my past reviews of Devendra Banhart and The Animal Collective by an oceanic crash-and-roar; Neighbours, although as floaty as anything else on the album, pulls off that old funk structure trick of stacking more and more sounds on a single rhythm until it can be smashed home hard.
What occasional stumbles occur do so when the album tries to build songs around grooves rather than trying to use grooves to pin down songs. “Mourning Sound,” with its thudding drums and buzzing, Kim-Gordon-esque bass playing, tries to go for the kind of direct, uncomplicated dance punk which early Arcade Fire could easily get away with using Grizzly Bear’s tonal palette, but Grizzly Bear can only make work during the track’s occasional needling guitar breaks. This kind of thing isn’t even close to common enough to break the album, but it’s an example of the problem that the introduction of a heavier rhythm section – which, to be clear, I have always felt Grizzly Bear needed – isn’t just as straight an improvement of the sum of its parts. Not to get all lit-grad over here, but Virginia Woolf once said that James Joyce disregards “probability or coherence or any other of the handrails to which we cling for support when we set our imaginations free,” which is something that could also be said of Grizzly Bear, both for good and for ill. In trying to straighten up and sculpt their swirling miasmas of sound, on Painted Ruins Grizzly Bear haven’t left themselves quite so much room to let them be miasmas. Consequently, while the album on the whole sticks in the head more clearly than Veckatimest or Shields, it doesn’t have anything quite as stare-for-hours-on-end-trying-to-make-sense-of absorbing as the “ooh, ooh, oooh” of “Fine for Now” or the rumbling thunder of “Half-Gate.”
Overall, I had fun with Painted Ruins, and while 2017 hasn’t been a particularly stirring year for music this has probably been one of the best albums for it so far (even if it is somewhat let down by the fact that the out-of-the-park best album of this year so far, Crack Up, is a much stronger, bolder version of a similar thing). Ultimately, much like with Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN, it’s worth remembering that, however difficult it might be to get excited about, it’s still an original work by an original artist, and what makes it noteworthy are things we all take for granted. Grizzly Bear still write bizarre, unique melodies, and bring them to life with a palette of textures which just borders on the coast of alienating but remains, nonetheless, in the territory of fascinating. It’s just in a squarer, neater box here this time.