Though you can’t deny the baroque-pop craftsmanship of earlier efforts — full of elaborate and often gorgeous sonic constructions that some compared to Van Dyke Parks and others to a campfire Radiohead — Grizzly Bear sometimes was undone by its own precious cleverness and hipster emotional detachment on its first three records, including the 2009 breakthrough Veckatimest. Yet you ventured that opinion at considerable risk of poking the bear’s beyond-devoted fans — just check out the rabid snarl of the comments on my two-star review of that album.
The super-fans have been out to maul again when any critic has suggested that part of the success of album number four, a laborious three years in the making, is the select injection of a little Coldplay here and there, most notably on “Yet Again” and “A Simple Answer.” But that’s just snobbishness. Boston-to-Brooklyn transplant Edward Droste and his three bandmates always needed a well-placed hint of arena-rock stomp and grandeur to balance the more fragile, claustrophobic and prissy passages — a little pop to balance the prog, if you will — and Shields benefits from it the way the right Super 8 film would if instead it was shot for Imax.
Grizzly Bear has hardly abandoned its fascination with melancholy moods and complex, sometimes serpentine sound structures, and Droste’s plaintive voice still reminds me of Jeff Buckley at his most slippery. But the more straightforward drive of the best songs here (with much of the credit going to drummer Chris Bear for his wide dynamic range and broad percussive palette), the slightly more accessible lyrical musings of Droste and fellow songwriter Dan Rossen (they’ve said they collaborated more on this album, shooting to be more immediate or—their word—“sloppy”) and that aforementioned embrace of a more expansive, more rocking approach all are for the best.
The band doesn’t always succeed; “What’s Wrong” and the closing “Sun in Your Eyes” are abject failures, so Byzantine they’re just coldly alienating. Yet when the band does connect, as on the aforementioned "Yet Again" and “A Simple Answer” or the even more hard-hitting “Speak in Rounds” and the buoyant “Gun-Shy,” it never has sounded better.
Grizzly Bear, Shields (Warp Records)
Rating on the four-star scale: 3 stars.