In the best way, Grizzly Bear makes music that nags at me. Although there’s the occasional track that is immediately arresting — “Yet Again,” from 2012’s Shields, for example — but my predominant experience with the group’s music is one of not realizing it’s taking up residence in my brain until it seems as if it’s spilled and swelled to take up every corner. Other bands are all clamor and clatter. Grizzly Bear insinuates.
This is usually the kind of description that sends me skittering for different quarry in the record store, generally adverse to the sort of sonic wallpaper it often represents. At least across Grizzly Bear’s past couple of albums — including the new Painted Ruins, their first in five years — my normal rules of engagement are torn up and scattered to the winds. The songs are sly and rich with tricky, intriguing musical details. As I listen to Painted Ruins, I’m not immediately intoxicated, but there’s a bourbony waft that creates a quick comfort.
The opening track, “Wasted Acres,” appropriately establishes the vibe of the album. It is a lushly lackadaisical seduction, as if the end goal is a dozy cuddle in a hammock rather than something more carnal. The lyrics are spare, even simple (“Were you even listening?/ Were you riding with me?/ Were you even listening?”), putting the burden on the music. Like a living thing, the music rises up to meet the challenge, taking swerving curves as it goes. Both perpetuating and reinventing the textures of electronica, the song — like the rest of the album — is bold, vivid, inventive. At their most head-spinning, Grizzly Bear is like Sonic Youth if they’d tried to make something unbearably pretty.
Despite the layers of creativity, Grizzly Bear’s music sounds decidedly unlabored, as if it simply sprung into being or was at least captured casually. On the jabbing “Mourning Sound,” Edward Droste sings, “It’s the sound of distant shots and passing trucks,” and it’s easy to imagine the song here began as the same sort of syncopated ambiance. Thrillingly, the album has the feel of interpretation as much as creation. A universe collapsed into the studio and Grizzly Bear described what they saw, most of them using instruments rather than words. Only by capturing the pulse of that mystical dimension do they find their way to the chugging, pinging musical refrain of “Losing All Sense” or the forceful bursts in the heart of “Cut-Out.”
Others were a skill for crafting music — or at least a reasonable grasp of its composite tasks — can undoubtedly identify the mechanics of the tracks on Painted Ruins better than me. I’m left with elaborate equations, such as noting the tick-tock rhythm, warbling electronic effects, and mildly psychedelic come on vocals on “Glass Hillside” make it into the musical equivalent of slowly slurping a neon elixir through a bendy straw. There might be some flailing nonsense built into that description, evidence of a need to make sense of something that it slightly beyond me. But I’ve got to make my attempts, no matter how flawed. As I noted, Painted Ruins is rebounding around my head.