To say that the meandering five-man band Grizzly Bear has an ongoing identity crisis is to simultaneously point out their greatest short-falling and their most beloved virtue. The group’s first four records have been classified as indie-folk, psychedelic folk, chamber pop, baroque pop, and many other strained categorizations attempting to define the Brooklyn-based guild of multi-instrumentalists. Their latest album, Painted Ruins, holds true to this characterization, completely throwing out the typical verse-chorus structure and replacing it with synth-heavy, tempo-driven anthems that have been most aptly referred to as “art rock.”
Painted Ruins is deeply layered. The haunting vocals of frontman Ed Droste provide a heavy framework which is tightly underwritten by Chris Bear’s ever-complex rhythmic arrangements. It’s an album that begs to be heard repeatedly, offering more than can be properly appreciated at first listen. Grizzly Bear creates their signature in the consistent complexity of their instrumental composition, which at times will cause an unfortunate sense of disorganization within individual tracks. “Sky Took Hold” winds through a maze of synth and sporadic guitar riffs redeemed only by the powerful story-telling abilities of lyricist Chris Taylor.
“Mourning Sound” is the token standout single of Grizzly Bear’s fifth full-length release. It’s an accessible head-bobber, comparable to the band’s popular hit, “Two Weeks.” It is immediately catchy and destined to be overplayed on alternative radio stations nationwide. It acts as a contrarian to the entirety of Painted Ruins, which is rich and heavy, oozing with depth and full of dark corners to be explored.
It has been five years since Grizzly Bear’s last release, Shields, and that time was well spent producing the many thickly-coated brushstrokes that comprise Painted Ruins. Initially, this album feels like a sensory overload, but give it a second or third chance and it will come together to form what is ultimately another well-constructed, original record from indie-pop royalty Grizzly Bear.