In hindsight, 2012 was the twilight of the aughts blog-rock boom. A new crop of rap and R&B acts like Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, A$AP Rocky, and the Weeknd — to say nothing of established superstars like Kanye West and Drake — was mesmerizing the audience that traditionally lapped up new indie rock bands. A rising wave of poptimism, the belief that all music deserved a fair shot and that many longstanding critical biases are rooted in various forms of prejudice, was causing many self-professed snobs to cozy up to Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and artists far less substantial than those. In the same spirit (or in the hopes of catching a big break), quite a few underground musicians were attempting to work these more historically mainstream sounds into their own music. Spotify and their algorithmic ilk were shifting consumers’ focus from purchasing to streaming, both destabilizing an already precarious economic situation for independent musicians and supplanting the music discovery role of websites like this one — which were already beginning to die off (partially thanks to behemoth corporations consolidating the online ad industry) and were increasingly focusing on the aforementioned pop stars.
If anyone understood how fragile the whole ecosystem had become, it was Grizzly Bear. The Brooklyn band’s baroque blend of psychedelic rock, pop, and folk had made them indie A-listers in the latter half of the 2000s, culminating in the crossover success of 2009’s Veckatimest and its uncharacteristically bright and direct breakout single, the piano-plinking “Two Weeks.” At the turn of the decade, Grizzly Bear enjoyed the spoils of that success, but not that many spoils. In the weeks leading up to their Veckatimest follow-up, the band discussed their financial situation in an admirably transparent New York magazine profile strewn with pullquotes like “Bands appear so much bigger than they really are now, because no one’s buying records.” Apparently Jay-Z and Beyoncé attending one of your shows does not pay the bills, and in the long term, neither does licensing your song for a commercial. But if Grizzly Bear were approaching the end of their glory years, they made the most of the spotlight while they had it.
Shields, released 10 years ago this Sunday, is far from a Centipede Hz-style freak-scene retrenchment, but it’s also not the kind of album you release when you’re trying to elbow your way onto the radio. “Most of that record is, like, very pointedly trying to do the opposite of that,” guitarist and co-frontman Daniel Rossen told me earlier this year. Rossen noted how much the buzz surrounding Grizzly Bear had influenced the course of the band, intensifying the internal tug of war between the perceived expectation to go pop and the latent desire to keep writing dense, proggy material that paid little mind to notions of mainstream accessibility. “That was another larger conversation that we were having,” Rossen continued. “But I think it felt like kind of a triumph at the time to do that, to push to make a more challenging, strange record at that moment.”
It really was a triumph. Shields remains my favorite Grizzly Bear album, in part because of how often it makes those knotty passages and heady textures feel like rock ‘n’ roll. The whipping, snaking riffs on Rossen-led opener “Sleeping Ute” are pure Led Zeppelin. “Speak In Rounds” — with its hard-charging acoustic spine, spiky yet holographic lead guitar, and surprise brass finale — hits like former tour-mates Radiohead circa In Rainbows. Droste’s blustery “Yet Again” features more six-string heroics and further phenomenal work from rhythm section Chris Bear and Chris Taylor, plus vocal harmonies that morph from Beach Boys reverie to something more booming and momentous a la Brooklyn peers Yeasayer. It’s the catchiest and most immediate song on the album, albeit one that ends in an explosion of guitar noise.
By that point, we’re nearing the halfway mark, and Shields is not sounding like the anti-commercial self-sabotage situation implied by Rossen. Despite the conspicuous lack of a pandering “Two Weeks” sequel, those first few songs strike me as some of the most engaging and approachable work in Grizzly Bear’s catalog; the music only thumbs its nose at the mainstream in the sense that it centers on a tangle of guitars at a time when sparkling synths and other such pop dalliances were on the rise. OK, so it also sees Droste and Rossen spurning easily digestible lyrics and straightforward beats in favor of open-ended poetry, off-kilter rhythms, and unconventional time signatures. Yet Shields weaves in those abstract concepts and complex sounds so skillfully that they never undermine the great songwriting at the heart of the album.
As we move toward the center of the tracklist, Shields gets slightly quieter and weirder, and Rossen’s sense that the band was pushing back against crossover expectations makes a bit more sense. But even then, spacious downbeat tracks like the piano slow-creep “The Hunt” and the jazzy “What’s Wrong” are interspersed by songs with a skip in their step. “A Simple Answer” rides a galloping groove something like the rhythm Haim (exactly the kind of band that was ascending in the early 2010s) would soon borrow from the Eagles for “The Wire.” The misty “Gun-Shy” is the rare Grizzly Bear song you can shake your hips to. None of these songs leap out at you like, say, Passion Pit, but they aren’t exactly working overtime to scare off less sophisticated listeners. Put simply, they sound like Grizzly Bear being their best selves, regardless of how that might play with focus groups.
In the end, Shields sides with art over pop on a pair of epics that close out the album in breathtaking fashion. “Half Gate,” one of several songs to feature lead vocals from both Droste and Rossen, begins on an elegant orchestral note and proceeds to swallow up the band with pounding tumult. Such gorgeous clatter would have made a fine finale if not for Rossen’s seven-minute stunner “Sun In Your Eyes,” the sound of chamber-pop gone nuclear. It’s a song that makes use of Grizzly Bear’s full arsenal, alternating between periods of graceful near-silence and apocalyptic splendor. Amidst a final movement that sounds like a war zone pilloried by bass bombs, Rossen lets loose a farewell befitting all that grandiosity: “So bright, so long/ I’m never coming back.”
That wasn’t entirely accurate where Grizzly Bear were concerned, but in spirit it rang true. The band took five years to follow up Shields with Painted Ruins, a strong album that might have received a more rapturous reception if released at a different point in the band’s arc. By 2017, the zeitgeist had fully moved on, and the members of Grizzly Bear were aging into a phase of life when many people prefer to settle down. It’s telling that, a decade on from all that anxiety about the band’s financial future, the band has opted for an extended hiatus rather than grinding out a living on the road in the post-hype afterglow. If and when they return someday, be it with new music or just to play a few shows, they deserve to be celebrated as one of the best, most fascinating bands of their era. Until then, we can remember Shields as the masterpiece they snuck in just before the clock ran out on their 15 minutes.