Grizzly Bear have always made the sort of stylistically complex music that’s been hard to place in any one genre or even accurately convey to another person – they’re just… Grizzly Bear. Sure, you could spend an hour explaining what exactly chamber and baroque pop are, but the only way to truly understand Grizzly Bear is to listen. Their true charm lies not in their individual talents, but the way in which they bring those talents together while writing, recording, and performing, as if they exist as four heads resting comfortably on top of a large, singular body, complete with a harpsichord under one arm and a guitar in the other. Having since evolved from the Ed Droste fronted debut Horn of Plenty in 2004 to a four member group, the band has played around with different aesthetics throughout the years, afterwards with each member taking the time to understand their own style and purpose in the band as well as society. And now, five years since 2012’s Shields, they’ve returned with a stunning and, as is their want, an amazingly complex, textured album flawlessly conveying the process of decay, epiphany, and, partly, the slow, grueling process of rebirth, projecting those concepts inward into the self as well as out into the world around it.
Forget for a moment that Painted Ruins’s opener “Wasted Acres” is about riding an all terrain vehicle through a field and instead focus on it’s haunting repeated lyric sung by Daniel Rossen: “Were you even listening?” Although the rest of the song feels awfully esoteric and unfamiliar to the point of uneasiness, it’s an incredible strategy for the overall flow of the album – Rossen’s hollow tone mixed with the sensation of brooding, fantastical drums is the invitation into another one of Grizzly Bear’s intricately designed, heavily textured worlds, and he proceeds to ask you if you’ve ever taken the time to listen to your own desires, if you’re listening to the voices within yourself in the midst of a changing environment, begging you to tell him what you need, to trust him. Rossen repeatedly acts as your direct link connecting their world with the one in which you are familiar, being for the most part direct, outspoken, and hopeful, while Droste acts as the constant, incessant internal noise, the one that you feel you’ve battled and dealt with time and time again, even if you’ve never had to endure the pain of a breakup, the pain of not fully understanding yourself, or even just the pain of existing in a morally corrupt society lead by an equally corrupt leader, the last bit unfortunately being more accurate today than ever.
Despite the emotional weight of Droste’s contribution, Painted Ruins nonetheless explores the idea of re-enamoring yourself after the process of breaking apart, and is repeatedly explored in the lyrics, and we hear Droste’s laments of decay at an almost equal par with Rossen’s hopes of rebirth. Subsequently, there’s a wonderful sense of tension as well as a sense of resilience from enduring that tension, each song sounding like a catalyst for some sort of meaningful epiphany. As a result, Painted Ruins feels warm to the touch, housing a smoldering, aggressive nature begging for the chance to be released. Their instrumentals ricochet off each other while Droste and Rossen act as a tag team vocally, “Mourning Sound” being a wonderful example of their powerful dynamic. Droste sets the tone with his deep drawl, lamenting his mistakes and the slow decay of his love (“Let love age/ And watch it burn out and die”) and Rossen meanders in afterwards, riding the wave of bright guitar strums and electric synth, awoken to sounds reminiscent of wartime chaos, including “dogs,” “distant shots,” and “passing trucks.” It’s the first of the songs mostly dealing with decay and ruin, followed by the somber “Four Cypresses” and the idea of slow deterioration, the cypresses themselves directly symbolizing death as well as the life that came before it. Rossen repeats twice within the track that “it’s chaos, but it works,” which seems to be a catch-all phrase for their entire discography, from the quiet calamity of Yellow House to the colorful, bombastic Veckatimest, to the textured, complex Shields and now to this aggressive, brooding masterpiece.
“Three Rings” is the first to question the emotions long since buried deep inside, Droste asking through the midst of experimental, industrial sounding instrumentals if this is “the way it is” before sinking into a somber, teary-eyed “Ready, Able”-esque bridge of desperation and anguish, begging his beloved “don’t you ever leave me,” promising he can “make it better,” to make himself better too, if he can fit it in. It’s one of the handful of tracks that address the concept of epiphany, and as a result, the instrumentals usually begin with Christopher Bear’s relatively minimal chunky percussions and Chris Taylor’s disjointed bass plucks, only to later be met with a wave of techniques and styles that wash over to fill the space. Another, “Cut-out,” one of our absolute favorites on the album, also addresses the idea of letting go, to carve away at the parts causing you pain and eviscerate that “invading spore” within your body, “inhale your older self,” and move on. Instrumentally, it’s also one of the most interesting, beginning with a beautiful, subtle guitar melody and Droste’s voice swelling and deflating with ease, Rossen later acting as the chorus to his lead narrative, the voice of reason and action.
“Neighbors”’s grandiose composition and heartbreaking narrative hints at the idea that pain and strife are everlasting and seemingly impossible to prevent despite the human ideal to move on, perhaps even claiming it as part of the process to rebirth. Droste lamenting in drawn out breaths that “face to face/ We’ll watch our bodies break,” while Rossen lurks underneath with his own lucid tone, agreeing that yes, they “left [him] broken” and “helpless.” Closer “Sky Took Hold” is also one of the most stunning on the album, as it utilizes the power of Droste’s voice in the context of soliloquy, arguably where he shines most. After a soft, gentle introduction, the metallic synth that follow resemble five concentrated lightning strikes, which Droste uses as fuel to propel his voice higher until it seems to dissolve into the ether. At the end, he confides in the listener in the battlefield of instrumentals: “Since I was a young boy it was always there/ Inside me growing none of it seems fair/ I’ve grown to accept it, let it take the stage/ And leave me helpless, watching far away.” It’s a moment of clarity despite the noise it unravels itself in, and serves as a brilliant conclusion to an already dense, beautifully esoteric work.
Although the album contains the feelings of self-doubt and unease, the sense of hope and the chance for rebirth always seems to sit idly by, even sometimes embedded in the fibers of its complex instrumentals. In this, the image of the title’s painted ruins comes to mind, in both its negative and positive connotations; on one hand, the process of painting over something that has shattered seems fruitless, but on the other, it also symbolizes the act of moving on, taking into account your pain and your flaws and using them as the foundation for something even more beautiful than it was before. And sometimes, internal noise and external noise has the ability to cancel each other out, leaving in its wake something calm and lovely, and Painted Ruins is a fine example of just that, perhaps even one of the finest of the year.
photo by Tom Hines