Where to start with Grizzly Bear…? It’s undeniable that they’re one of the most prestigiously talented and inventive acts around, but their idiosyncrasies can be off-putting to the casual listener. They’re critical darlings, with a reputation for immaculate musicianship, dazzlingly intricate live performances, and Jonny Greenwood says they’re his favourite band. With this years release of ‘Painted Ruins’ following on from the magnificence of 2012’s ‘Shields,’ expectations were high – five years is a long time to wait, so naturally this was one of 2017’s most exciting musical dates for me.
After some bland support from newcomers Liima, the Grizzlys initiate proceedings with the twisting, turning magnificence of single ‘Four Cypresses‘. Droste’s lyrics are renowned for their oblique crypticisms, but one particular mantra – “It’s chaos, but it works” (the song’s closing epithet) – cuts through the roiling, churning sound-collage. It conceivably even functions as a warning sign to the audience, signalling as to the experience they are about to receive.
The band are everything they’re cracked up to be performance-wise – all the individual parts are articulate and cut through the mix, each demanding attention without interfering with the other parts. The playing is complex and precise but it never feels without place or function – Grizzly Bear are making music for its own sake – not to prove a point about how talented they are. We continue with new cuts ‘Losing All Sense‘ and ‘Cut Out,’ before the crowd are treated to more familiar material in the form of ‘Yet Again‘. It’s one of only three songs on the night from ‘Shields,’ the others being the album’s opener ‘Sleeping Ute‘ and closer ‘Sun in Your Eyes,’ which wraps things up on the night as well.
Indeed there are notable absences from the setlist, including ‘Neighbours,’ a major single off the current album, ‘Sleep in Rounds‘ (Shields, 2012) and ‘All I Ask‘ (Veckatimest, 2009). These strong songs seem to have been jettisoned in favour of some slightly more ponderous material. ‘Glass Hillside‘ is an interesting song from an intellectual perspective, but it fails to connect with the audience, and struggles to elevate itself to anything more than a compositional exercise, and ‘Knife‘ (Yellow House, 2006) feels somewhat directionless when placed in the context of the band’s later work.
The intensity of the densely layered climaxes (something of a Grizzly Bear trademark) can start to feel just a little fatiguing when you hit the hour-and-a-half mark, but thankfully we are treated to a beautiful, calming, respite in the form of piano-led ‘Veckatimest‘ closer, ‘Foreground‘. It’s heartfelt and desperately personal, like almost all of the band’s work, but its meditative lilt soothes the audience at a much needed moment.
One could feasibly criticise this band and their show as being insufferably serious – there are no “fun” tracks, no earworms and no easily relatable emotional content. Droste is almost always personal rather than universal, and tends towards the oblique end of the lyrical spectrum. Grizzly Bear’s music requires repeated listenings, and thus I imagine that someone unfamiliar with the band’s music might feel a little disoriented by the live experience.
However, to call this show anything other than a triumph would be utterly unfair – such is the scale of Grizzly Bear’s ambition that they deserve a free pass on a couple of songs, and when they hit their stride (which they do nine times out of ten), they are capable of producing a unique and powerfully transcendent response in their listeners.
The new album ‘Painted Ruins’ is out now – and available to purchase on various formats here.
For updates and more information on Grizzly Bear, visit their Website.