Grizzly Bear: Painted Ruins

Scott Wallace
19th Aug 2017

Few indie rock bands have a catalogue as compositionally rich as Grizzly Bear. Their supple and structurally experimental songs seem to endlessly reveal fine sonic details. Painted Ruins, their fifth album and first since 2012's muscular Shields, is just as distinct as what preceded it, and that may be part of why it doesn't create as strong of an impression. For the first time, it feels like Grizzly Bear are repeating themselves.

Opener "Wasting Acres" is a fine intro, with moody piano and a sultry beat the perfect accompaniment to its downcast melody. It has an absorbing, ashen quality, as if it might crumble at any moment. It's disappointing, then, that the rigidly rhythmic "Mourning Sound" breaks the spell almost immediately like a gust of unwelcome wind. Despite its hard-edged, throbbing bass, the track feels flat and unmemorable.

In fact, it's not really until the jittery "Aquarian," with its ghostly swells of guitar and piano spreading across its tumultuous surface like drops of paint that the record rights itself. Much of Painted Ruins, particularly the thumping "Losing All Sense" lack the kind of dynamism the band is known for. The compositions are there, but the sense of an actual performance is lost in production cluttered by an obtrusive low-end and bright blocks of sound. 

The record's second half is admittedly stronger than the first. "Cut-Out" and "Glass Hillside" sound almost like a pair of the choicest cuts from Love's 1967 baroque rock classic Forever Changes, with lyrics that fall on the right side of obtuse. The hovering woodwinds of "Neighbors" create an alluring darkness alongside rough-hewn guitars, and "Sky Took Hold" is a rousing closer drenched in bright horns and burbling synths that cut right through the mix. 

The fact remains, though, that Painted Ruins still sounds like a band beginning to stagnate. It doesn't even feel like a transition to something new for the band, and by now Grizzly Bear's bag of tricks are commonplace. Bands needn't reinvent themselves on every record, but there's little to recommend Painted Ruins above revisiting Shields or 2009's Veckatimest.

It's hard to dislike this album - there are definitely far less interesting albums out there - but it's not the kind of record that you can sink your teeth into and listen to over and over again. The title Painted Ruins is oddly appropriate - this album is not something to get lost in, but simply to view from a distance. An artefact that has been refurbished and lost its allure in the process. 

Painted Ruins is out now on CD, vinyl, and digital formats.