Revisiting Yellow House, the 2006 folk masterpiece that helped Grizzly Bear break out to a wider audience in the indie rock community, the progression they have made in the 11 years since is breathtaking to watch. While they never discarded the basic elements of folk harmonies and ornate arrangements inspired by ‘60s icons like The Beach Boys, Vashti Bunyan, and Van Dyke Parks, they took those inspirations and evolved into one of the more expansive, elaborate rock bands of the era. Credited for popularizing “freak-folk” alongside contemporaries like Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens, they dove into a fuller sound, thunderous arena-rock that is still intricate, layered, and fit for an age where bands like Radiohead actually play arenas. On Painted Ruins, the band’s re-emergence after five years away, Grizzly Bear have become a tighter collective, more connected than ever before.
Painted Ruins finds the members of Grizzly Bear perfectly in sync with each other, especially with the interlocking dueling melodies of the chorus on “Neighbors”. Take the aptly named “Three Rings”, where drummer Chris Bear’s booming percussion builds to a dramatic crescendo while guitarist Daniel Rossen masterfully noodles around a complicated riff as Ed Droste’s voice smoothly glides over the ecstatic symphony asking, “Don’t you feel it all coming together?” The comfort and familiarity they’ve amassed over nearly 15 years of playing together pays off in spades as they tear through these complex arrangements, fully in step together.
According to the band, this harmonious atmosphere was due to the members coming together on the same page for the recording process as opposed to the one for 2012’s Shields. In a 2014 video interview with The New York Times, Droste called frustration “key to the collaborative process.” He explained that if they could create an album easily in a couple months, something would be wrong, and at the end of every album, they ask if they will be able to do it again. Three years later, in an interview with Spin, Droste admitted that the recording of Shields was stressful, calling it an “arduous, beating-your-head-over-and-over thing.”
Comparatively, they took their time writing for Painted Ruins, working out the demos together before going into the studio and letting the ideas flow naturally. They steered clear of an intense pressure, described by Droste as “if it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen.” The band had more fun making Painted Ruins, which is apparent from the onset. On opener “Wasted Acres”, Rossen lowers his voice and imbues it with slight breathiness. There’s playfulness in his voice, and the hypnotic repetition of the melody recalls the folk earworm “On a Neck, On a Spit”. After years of keeping listeners at arm’s length, the song serves as a coy invitation.
A self-described democracy, Grizzly Bear focused on having more collaboration and input throughout Painted Ruins. Members paired off to write songs in new ways, such as Rossen and Bear on the languid folk ballad “Four Cypresses”, where the lyric “it’s chaos, but it works” almost seems to describe the band’s approach. Bassist Chris Taylor had a more significant role in the songwriting this time around, which is apparent on single “Mourning Sound”, where his driving bass takes the lead and gives the song a grooving, funky foundation off which its momentum builds. On “Systole”, he delivers his first turn at lead vocals on a Grizzly Bear song, where his smooth voice lightly croons an R&B melody that adds another dimension to the band’s repertoire.
The mutual trust and free-flowing collaboration serve as the backdrop for lyrics that examine inner conflict in a surprisingly direct manner. Grizzly Bear’s songs tend to keep fans at a distance, with intentionally abstract lyrics, yet on Painted Ruins they open up. Droste stressed in an interview with Pitchfork that lyrics that may sound like they are about a recent divorce are “more about recognizing internal conflict.” Listening to the tension in his voice as he sings, “Don’t you ever leave me” on “Three Rings”, no backstory is necessary for the full power of the longing in his voice to be felt.
An air of incisive examination permeates Droste’s lyrics, like the cutting “You’ll never know the feel to be a good guy inside” on the slinky, psych-groove of “Cut-Out” or the way he confronts inner doubts and anxieties on the expansive closer “Sky Took Hold”, For Rossen’s songs, a sort of isolation and uncertainty takes hold, inspired in part by topics like refugee displacement or homelessness. The meandering yet sublime “Glass Hillside” mentions “upcountry drifters in permanent repose,” while the spiritual “Aquarian” paints a portrait of bodies lying “on the burning ground.” Whether caused by external forces or internal ones, Painted Ruins finds the band confronting their worries and insecurities on all sides, making their collaboration together all the more important as they delve deeper.
Rossen and Droste’s push-and-pull musical relationship is less a struggle these days and more a seamlessly flowing acrobatic waltz, dizzying as they weave their strengths together in a balance difficult to achieve and impressive to watch. On Painted Ruins, they’ve expanded that to a point where each member’s talents are allowed to flourish. While there’s no bright single like “Knife” or “Two Weeks” to be found here, the band’s growth as a cohesive unit results in their most accomplished album yet. Painted Ruins is a wondrously complex adventure that rewards attention and patience yet is never inscrutable. The return of one of indie rock’s sharpest bands reminds us why they earned that designation and is entirely worth the wait.
Essential Tracks: “Mourning Sound”, “Three Rings”, “Losing All Sense”, and “Neighbors”