Like all Grizzly Bear albums, Painted Ruins marries dense, layered instrumentation and oblique lyrics. They fashion difficult yet rewarding albums filled with songs that typically take a number of listens to open up. (If you’re wondering what I mean, check out their Song Exploder episode, which takes apart single “Four Cypresses.”)
Then again, this is sort of what you expect when a band routinely takes at least three years between albums.
Pitchfork’s review of Painted Ruins, penned by Jillian Mapes, likened the album’s lyrics to “a gorgeous looking puzzle with half the pieces missing,” and the analogy seems apt. I really don’t know what vocalists Daniel Rossen and Ed Droste are singing about most of the time. But that doesn’t detract from the music, as the band isn’t aiming for a target so much as they are showing you all possible paths through the woods. Once again, I’ll defer to Mapes: “Their arrangements are weighty and crumpled, creating songs that aren’t open roads so much as a series of switchbacks.”
That description is certainly true of a song like “Aquarian,” which keeps you guessing using a hook that emerges only briefly before diving back beneath the glimmering surface.
But Grizzly Bear also know how to settle down into a groove or let loose a little, as they demonstrate two minutes into “Cut-Out,” a song halfway through the 11-track album that erupts into a pounding crescendo.
But even at these points, when the music becomes a little less mannered, it’s usually two minutes in, meaning the band wouldn’t be well-suited to a summer festival stage that rewards don’t-bore-us-get-to-the-chorus songwriting. But it does mean they sound in your living room or on headphones.
For me, Painted Ruins ultimately succeeds because it blends a dash of pop sensibility into the band’s sound while remaining quintessentially Grizzly Bear. Lead single “Mourning Sound” is a case in point: catchy and lilting, with lyrics that bring to mind the world passing by your window (“the sound of distant shots / and passing trucks”). “Losing All Sense,” another single, is downright bouncy. It’s territory the band hasn’t explored since Veckatimest (2009) single “Two Weeks.” But while that song was uncharacteristic of the album as a whole, songs like “Mourning Sound” only sound better when placed in the context.
Still, they use some familiar tricks, including a recurring watery, buzzing guitar effect (Mapes deemed it a “briny wave”). I’m not sure which band member is responsible for it — I suspect Rossen — but there are also some unusual guitar tunings on display here, which add to the haunting, off-kilter feel of the music.
Drummer Christopher Bear is the band’s secret weapon, and he is once again deployed to great effect. If you like unusual rhythms, this is the 2017 album for you. The stuttering snare beat that builds “Four Cypresses” and then breaks out around the 2:30 mark is just incredible.
In Grizzly Bear songs, both vocalists are good at floating melodies and harmonies, which is exactly what they need to do when they’re singing over arrangements this layered and busy. While some might find this kind of music too fussy, I think it yields rewards for those patient enough to let it blossom.