Grizzly Bear takes time to grow on you.
“It’s chaos, but it works.” Not to disagree with Daniel Rossen too much, but Grizzly Bear’s music is anything but chaos; the quartet makes some of the most complex and layered music outside of progressive rock and extreme metal circles. There’s almost a scientific approach to the way Grizzly Bear craft their sounds, making music that’s as beautiful as it is unsettling. This is their strength. Rossen makes unnatural sounds with his guitar and his disquietingly high tenor, while Ed Droste’s sleepy croon makes his lyrical waxing sound like vaguely remembered dreams. Add in the constant need for poking holes in traditional pop structures and you get a mess of uncanny sounds—not quite pop, indie, rock or folk, but an amalgamation that shudders and lurches even while it entrances.
Sonically, Painted Ruins’ closest modern relative is the hysteric beauty of St. Vincent’s Actor. Flourishes of Yes and King Crimson flutter in and out of the sound. That’s always been obvious in Rossen’s virtuoso guitar playing, but small moments hint at the pastoral and recall early Genesis. Though only one song reaches beyond the five-minute mark, this might be Grizzly Bear’s most progressive effort. On “Four Cypresses,” the sudden burst and boom of crunchy guitar melting into hallucinatory vocal harmonies certainly harkens to the heydays of prog rock more than any of Dream Theater’s recent efforts.
But this can be as much of a stumbling point as a benefit. Painted Ruin’s flaws run parallel to Fleet Foxes’ Crack-Up. As Katherine Springer wrote, that album “sometimes suffers at the hands of its many fraught layers,” a similar diagnosis for what plagues Painted Ruins. Despite the relatively short runtime, the first half of the album seems to lounge and languish. Grizzly Bear were never interested in verse/chorus formulas, and they allow their work to run far from any circular logic. But the cohesion of tracks like “Losing All Sense” suffers for it. Even the excellent “Cut-Out” seems disinterested in holding forward momentum. Rather, it comes off as a series of exceptionally cool sounds happening one after the other, without much connective tissue between. The track is still thrilling, but occasionally confounding, as it feels like it could have been chopped up into about four separate, excellent songs. And “Mourning Sound” is essentially a worse approach to the impetus behind “Cut-Out”—great ideas popping up helter-skelter, but never fully forming into something solid. Grizzly Bear recently visited the “Song Exploder” podcast, which turned into one of its longest episodes as they broke down the intricate “Four Cypresses.” It’s no surprise, then, that at its worst, Painted Ruins can feel overstuffed.
Still, Grizzly Bear will always deliver some of the most beautiful musical moments in any given year and Painted Ruins does so in spades. The jarring tempo change of “Cut-Out”’s chorus is as enthralling as it is worrying, and “Neighbors” is pure, classic Grizzly Bear hypnotism. Rossen’s and Droste’s voices entwine as a guitar cascades down over them in the undulating chorus. Bassist Chris Taylor gets his first lead vocal turn with “Systole” and sounds like a cross between Rossen and Droste. Good to know that Grizzly Bear now have three beautiful and unsettling singers.
And perhaps more importantly, drummer Christopher Bear is finally getting his due. Bear has been among the best drummers in indie rock since 2009’s Veckatimest, thanks to his deft touch. His complex patterns would make any death metal drummer’s hands cramp, but he never overtakes the sound. The slippery logic of “Neighbors” wouldn’t work without his jittery approach, nor would “Four Cypresses” have the same emotional weight without his constant dynamic shifting. “Three Rings” isn’t just Bear’s best performance to date, but the best song on Painted Ruins. It’s also Droste at his most captivating, with Rossen and Taylor’s harmonies swirling around him, as he pleads and cajoles a lover into staying. He lands somewhere between possessiveness (“Don’t you be so easy”) and cockiness (“Don’t you know that I can make it better?”). Considering Droste and his ex-husband divorced three years ago, perhaps the song is a longer reflection on the paradoxes of any long-term relationship and his own faults and foibles within one. Either way, it’s goddamn devastating to hear him flip between begging and threatening as Rossen’s guitars carry Droste’s voice to the finish line.
Grizzly Bear takes time to grow on you. On the heels of Veckatimest and Shields, Painted Ruins can feel woozy to a fault and occasionally rudderless. But for those interested in sonic puzzles that tease rather than tell, Grizzly Bear has delivered another delirious and gorgeous effort.