Along with Phoenix’s “1901” and Animal Collective’s “My Girls,” “Two Weeks” was one of the biggest crossover hits of 2009. It saw Grizzly Bear playing a role that longtime fans hadn’t yet seen: that of the pop connoisseur. As beautiful as their music often was, they never seemed like they were striving for accessibility. With that blindingly bright piano progression, a habitually beautiful harmony and some zeitgeist magic, “Two Weeks” appeared to stumble upon it by chance. And for the passive music listener, that little bit of alchemy may be the last they ever hear of Grizzly Bear; Shields certainly makes no attempt to recreate it.
While Grizzly Bear’s fourth studio effort reneges on the more user-friendly sound that they cultivated so fruitfully on Veckatimest, it still speaks in the same language. Ornate, antique arrangements rule on high, the musical counterpart to Victorian architecture. It is wholly lovely; but like a cast iron structure, it’s also a bit chilly. Several visitations are essential to digest the agile rhythms and coax out the underlying melodies. Icebreaker “Sleeping Ute”’s tinny, crisscrossing guitar slashes and full-bodied vocals make for some of the smoothest listening on the record. It’s as musically discursive a track as Grizzly Bear has ever crafted. Like much of Shields, it conscientiously refuses overindulgence, retaining the perfectionist earmarks that have become the group’s specialty. “Half Gate” struggles to contain itself, quelling delicate snare rolls and antsy staccato work before exploding into the turbulent great beyond.
The points where the acoustic finesse gives way to piano and synthesizers result in some of the record’s shakier tracks. “The Hunt,” minimal on the same level as “Foreground,” has nothing but a modest melody to carry the day. Still, the infrequency of these moments makes them forgivable when looking at the broader agenda. Shields’ real sucker punch comes on “Yet Again” (still one of our favorite songs of the year). Here, they inhabit a realm of effortlessness that few of their contemporaries even dream of venturing into, and even the cacophonous outro is measured and meticulous. It reverberates with subtle force, shimmering over one of the more rock-oriented rhythms of Grizzly Bear’s career.
Much of Shields deals with indecision and repetition, the regret of discovery, and safeguarding oneself from the consequences of one’s actions. “I found the worst half in me/ I’m cut off at the knee,” mourns Ed Droste in his ever-ripening tenor on “Gun-Shy.” There’s a clearer bifurcation of vocal duties here. Droste’s work doesn’t often overlap with guitarist Daniel Rossen’s, though they remain one of the better vocal tandems in the indie-verse. Rossen deals with similar subjects, although more impressionistically (“If I draw you upside down/I can’t let go”). Although it is confident, this is an overprotective record, and nothing is guarded more closely than the lyrics. Take “Speak in Rounds,” which doubles down at the chorus: “Step dad just wants to learn how to be alone/ Come get what’s lost/ What’s left before it’s gone.” The line between vagueness and impartation is artfully toed, allowing the listener to make their own breakthroughs at their own pace.
But for all of the respite that is offered here, there are moments of lucidity: “No wrong or right/ Just do whatever you like,” advises Rossen on “A Simple Answer.” Grizzly Bear have done just that, an admirable move for a band that easily could have chosen to pander to a new legion of fair-weather fans. Shields is both well-mannered and demanding, subdued but always bubbling under the surface. In electing to forgo the majestic sweep of Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear have made a record that succeeds on its own winsome terms.