Since their sophomore release Yellow House, Brooklyn collective Grizzly Bear has been lauded for songwriting that merges pop with a real eye for texture and ambience. With each release, Droste, Rossen and co. have expanded their sonic palette. The insularity of apartment-recorded Horn of Plenty gave way to the more ambitious cabin-sojourn Yellow House and then the meticulous and expansive Veckatimest. Shields, though a fine album with a few choice cuts, doesn’t build as successfully on the band’s past as does their earlier work.
On opener “Sleeping Ute,” Grizzly Bear shows some teeth with a blues rendition. Above echoing Jeff Buckley-esque guitars and a soaring hook, Rossen sings, achingly, “but I can’t help myself.” “Speak in Rounds” continues the momentum of “Ute” with a dark arrangement, but midway through the band treads familiar territory—it’s eerily similar to the skipping guitar of “Southern Point.” I’ve never thought of Grizzly Bear as conventional, but the majority of Shields shies away from expanding their sound. After the jazzy-rock number “Yet Again,” the album starts to lose steam. “The Hunt” in particular merely plods along, going nowhere, and the arrangement doesn’t capitalize on the album’s best lyrics. “A Simple Answer” breaks the album’s flow, but the Broadway-esque vocals bore more than they please. Most Grizzly Bear songs are written intimately, but “Simple Answer” might as well have been written for the arena. “Gun-shy,” despite its catchy, dreamy chorus, maintains a conventional alt-rock structure. Fortunately, the Lennon-inspired piano ballad “Sun in Your Eyes” ends the album well, hitting some glorious highs.
All of which is to say that Shields sounds wonderful, exhibits a high degree of musicianship, etc. But even after five run-throughs, I found there weren’t any moments that gripped me like the best tracks on Veckatimest: “While You Wait for the Others,” “I Live With You” and “Foreground.” Whereas Veckatimest was bold, grand and majestic, Shields is too complacent.