It’s typical for grizzly bears to hibernate for five months, but did you hear about the one that hibernated for five years? On 2017’s Painted Ruins, the Brooklyn art-rock band Grizzly Bear roared from its cave, sounding recharged from its half-decade sleep after the baroque-pop crescendo of the critically worshipped Shields. Like other indie bands who dominated the ’00s and recently returned (Wolf Parade and Broken Social Scene among them), Grizzly Bear didn’t pick up where it left off—it got back to basics.
That means regally churning bass lines, drums that swell and splash like oceans, guitars that spike over them like reflected light piercing overcast skies, and keys and tempos that charge hard in one direction before slipping into the unexpected. And, of course, there are the enigmatic vocals of Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen, two very different but complementary singer-songwriters who share an elusively troubled serenity. Their music feels so thoughtful because it’s always changing its mind.
Grizzly Bear wasn’t always so magisterial. On 2004’s Horn of Plenty, it was just Droste’s bedroom breakup project. His hollowed-out folk dirges groaned in tune with the national spirit of cauterized hope that still lingered in those post-9/11 years. But it wasn’t until 2006’s Yellow House—with the addition of Rossen, Chris Taylor, and Christopher Bear—that the band coalesced into one to which others would be compared. Grizzly Bear was a leader of the all-singing, all-playing, why-not-try-this-conch-shell approach that swept ’00s indie. They produced era-defining songs like “Two Weeks” or “Knife,” a lusty-yet-aloof singalong with an air of sunny menace.
In Meet Me in the Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman’s oral history of New York rock in the ’00s, there are basically three breeds: louche, stylish rock bands (The Strokes, Interpol); prematurely jaded dance bands (LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture); and other (TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear). If that last category seems like a copout, trust it has some consistent tendencies: a mood less hedonistic than hagiographic, a temperament that swings between messianic and apocalyptic, a nebulous spiritual urgency. This is true as ever of Grizzly Bear on Painted Ruins, a headphones-puzzle that solves itself over time, though it’s also slinkier, even dancier than Veckatimest and Shields. Above all, Grizzly Bear deploys grandeur not to celebrate life’s fullness but to fill its voids. Perhaps it’s no wonder that, in these turbulent times, we need them again.