Grizzly Bear were gone for a few years after Veckatimest, but the amount of extracurricular projects they tackled during that time -- Chris Taylor's work with CANT, Daniel Rossen's solo EP Silent Hour/Golden Mile, and the band's reconfiguring of their own songs into the Blue Valentine soundtrack -- means they never really went away. Shields isn't exactly a dramatic return then, which is somehow fitting considering that this is some of the band's most cerebral music. There's nothing here with quite the instant appeal of "Two Weeks" or the aching vulnerability of "Foreground"; instead, most of these songs lie between those two poles. Yet Shields is full of remarkably active music, starting with "Sleeping Ute," where acoustic guitars that sound more like they're being scrubbed than strummed tumble into bubbling synths, which then give way to rhythms that conjure leaves twirling in the breeze. "Speak in Rounds" may be the most rocking song they've done yet, even if it climaxes with rustling brass and flutes instead of a shredding guitar solo. As dazzling as these flourishes can be, sometimes the complexity of Shields' arrangements threatens to overshadow the actual songs, and the most direct moments are among the album's best. "Yet Again" shows once again how good Grizzly Bear are at putting their abstract leanings into their version of a pop single: the guitars ring out with inevitability, the harmonies propel the song to new heights, and everything gets gloriously noisy before it fades away. The bouncy "A Simple Answer" and sleek "Gun-Shy" follow suit, but what makes them and the rest of Shields intriguing is the tension between the music's brash dynamics, and words and feelings that often turn inward. The band's lyrics are more cryptic and coded than ever, and the snippets that listeners get, such as "Cloistered from yourself/You never even try," from "What's Wrong," are abstractions of relationships that feel like extreme close-ups or bird's-eye views. These mysteries don't detract from the pure melodic beauty of songs like "Half-Gate," though, and the way that the album travels from its stormy beginnings to the serenity of "Sun in Your Eyes" means it can be called a song cycle without shame or snickering. While it's not as obviously big a statement as Veckatimest was, Shields is plenty ambitious in its own right, and its complexity demands and rewards patient listening.
by Heather Phares