2017 is seemingly the year of returns - The xx, Fleet Foxes, and now Grizzly Bear have all ceased their extended hiatuses. All three bands have evolved, but in the case of the latter, their sonic progression may not be the most apparent, but it might be the boldest. With Painted Ruins, the Brooklyn-based quartet's fifth album, we hear a continuation of the mellow sound on 2012's Shields, but with a more synth-oriented approach.
Talking about musical progression in relation to Grizzly Bear can seem naive - rather than dominating the soundscape, any new influence will be steadier rather than intrusive, with the odd flourish colouring the palette the band seek to create. On opener 'Wasted Acres', the electronics merely linger in the background, supporting Beck-like vocal patterns and Radiohead (In Rainbows era)-style beats. This influence is heard further on 'Glass Hillside' - the ghostly harmonies and sparse atmosphere in the verses are especially reminiscent of the British band.
It's a far-cry from their signature song, 'Two Weeks', with 'Mourning Sound' being the only cut that comes close to recapturing the spirit of that piece of feel-good indie rock. The chugging guitar and new wave synths help to create the most up-tempo track on the record, juxtaposing the bitter lyrics; "Let love age/And watch it burn out and die".
'Two Weeks' was nevertheless an outlier on 2009's Veckatimest - that was a chamber-pop album built on the combination of complex song structures and intricate vocal harmonies. This template remains, and is evident on lead-single 'Three Rings', a stunning amalgamation of shuffling percussion, driving bass, crisp guitar work and orchestral flourishes. It culminates with some gorgeous vocal work from Ed Droste, referencing his divorce as he beautifully delivers the lines; "Don't you be so reasoned/Don't you know that I can make it better?/Don't you ever leave me/Don't you feel it all come together?".
It's a recurring theme on Painted Ruins - on 'Losing All Sense', Droste is replaying memories in his head; "When I woke up today I was bound/To a memory cut long ago/I could hear all your words echo on down". This foregrounds a synth-inflected doo-wop instrumental - another shift in genre for a band that refuses to be pinned down by one category. 'Aquarian' sees the band experiment less successfully, with the constant changes in tempo and lack of a digestible melody creating a jarring effect - thankfully, a smooth outro somewhat negates the mess that precedes it.
There are moments here that are recognisable - 'Neighbors' sounds like a long-lost outtake from Veckatimest, with the luscious acoustic guitar plucks and spritely percussion marking this as the most folk-tinged track. ‘Cut-Out’ could also slot in nicely on that album, with the intricate guitar work in the verse preceding broad thrashes in the chorus. It’s undoubtedly the heaviest song on the album, with Chris Bear’s work on the drums matching the soft-loud progression from the guitars.
It’s on album-closer ‘Sky Took Hold’ where his ability is most obvious, with the combination of booming drums, brooding synth-bass and screeching guitars making the cut an album highlight. In true Grizzly Bear fashion, it crescendos in the middle, then almost dissolves away – somewhat powerful in its understatement. It’s typical of a band who create noise when they return, then softly disappear when they’re done promoting their work, biding their time before they release their next gem. After the release of Shields, they were declared as “indie rock royalty” by The New York Times – following Painted Ruins, it remains to be seen what accolades Grizzly Bear will receive.