Grizzly Bear Stun With their Expansive Musical Palette but Fail to Deliver a Work of Art
Brooklyn band Grizzly Bear have released their highly anticipated follow up to 2012’s Shields, Painted Ruins. The singles released leading up to Painted Ruins showed a promising final product from the band. Although it is obvious that Grizzly Bear has a mastery of an ever expanding palette of sound, the overall painting fails to coalesce into a satisfying album. The sounds that they use to construct the album can be interesting when isolated but when they are built into songs they gel together to an extent where everything fades into the background. I have listened to this album quite frequently over the past week and I am now just beginning to recall the songs sounds. Grizzly Bear has created an album that requires too much unpacking in order to fully enjoy it.
The first single released from this album, “Three Rings”, is a textbook example of a song that explores the flaws and strengths in this album. The drum beat that permeates throughout the album sounds phenomenal and creates a great back bone for the song. The sound is eventually lost as the vocals and other instrumentals overpower and overcrowd the song. This is my fundamental qualm with the album. Instead of creating a sort of sinusoidal pattern with the various instrumentals that they are playing with, they focus on one sound in the introduction that is flatlined with the cacophony of sound that appears in the choruses of many of the songs. “Three Rings” does better than most songs because the vocals peak out a little more over the musical landscape than in most of the songs. This creates a flow that much of the album lacks. “Losing All Sense” is a worse version of the formula used in “Three Rings”. The introduction sound is not as poignant as in “Three Rings” and the wall of sound drowns out anything interesting they were attempting with the song vocally and instrumentally. “Systole” and “Sky Took Hold” do similar things to “Losing All Sense” as they are not memorable at all.
The mid level tier songs in the album consist of the first three tracks. “Wasted Acres” have beautiful vocals that contrast within the song. Through most of the album, the vocals are very one note and this song is a breath of fresh air from that. It also represents a great introduction to the album because the instruments are not too overpowering and it eases you into the massive “Mourning Sound.” By far the most radio friendly song on the album, “Morning Sound” is a cornucopia of sound that all take their turn in the spotlight. It has the catchiest vocals and the interim instrumentation that evoke the sound of the cosmos. It also has a pretty great music video:
“Four Cypresses” also has pretty catchy vocals but much of the instrumentation is lost when everything is constructed. The instrumentation begs for a large buildup and release but never quite gets to that point. Towards the end of the song, the instrumentation starts rebuilding as if the song is about to repeat.
The high points on the album leave much to desire in terms of the overall sound of the songs. The song “Aquarian” almost suffers a similar fate as “Losing All Sense”, but the more exciting Rock instrumentals that can be actually identified throughout the song and the tonal transition that happens in the middle saves it. The first half of the song is doomed to the overproduction that characterizes most of the album. “Cut-Out” might be the only song on the album that I think is a great manifestation of what Grizzly Bear was trying to do. The instrumentation is fantastic and the variance throughout the song is telling of craftsmanship. There is not one long, loud symphony of vocals and instruments, there are three distinct sounds that are played out in sections and as a whole tell a story to the ear. The distinctively low vocals and relatively bare instrumentals on “Neighbors” make it a highlight. The massive instrumentation is only seen in the middle of the song (and it still doesn’t sound great) and this again creates a great flow that can be appreciated.
The lyrics play a minimal and somewhat mysterious role in a lot of the songs as they are often hard to make out by the overbearing instrumentals. “Wasted Acres” uses a lot of rhetorical questions to evoke sadness of this relationship to a “Trusted Friend”. Ed Droste’s ask “Were you even listening?/Were you riding with me?” of what we can only assume to be a struggling friendship. The vagueness of the lyrics leave little room for empathy as we are not even given a cliché to hold onto.“Mourning Sound” is laced with irony as the lyrics do not seem to match with the overall upbeat nature of the instrumentation. Many of the lyrics throughout the songs are very colorful but it is often hard to focus on the lyrics because of the instrumentation. In “Cut-Out” Droste compares someone to an “Invading Spore” as he talks to himself about growing up with the line “Inhale your older self/ Cut it up and and let it go.” It is hard to discern any themes with the lyrics as most of them seem to be vaguely about relationships. The two exceptions to this are the suburban conflict that seems to be taking place in the songs “Morning Sound” and “Neighbors.” Droste laments about the struggles of a 9 to 5 in “Mourning Sound” singing “I stare at the face/Looking through my eyes/I move at a pace/That I cannot survive.” In “Neighbors” explores the idea of how we too often don’t really know our neighbors.
Although the themes could be more developed and instrumentation toned down, Painted Ruins, with time, can be an enjoyable experience. There is no denying the time and effort put into every little detail but looking at the bigger picture Grizzly Bear misses the mark.
Check out our review of Mourning Sound
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