Grizzly Bear’s fourth album, Shields, has the tricky distinction of having to follow Veckatimest, which holds court as the band’s greatest musical feat to date, an exquisite distillation of their Crosby, Stills and Nash-inspired psych-folkiness that produced such richly drawn gems as “Two Weeks,” “Ready,” and “Cheerleader.” Cognizant of the fact that Shields will be measured against its predecessor’s long shadow, the band shakes things up by trying their hand at collaborative songwriting (vocalist/guitarist and Grizzly Bear founder Edward Droste wrote most of Veckatimest). Unfortunately, while the band’s attempt to avoid simply repeating themselves is admirable, having everyone pitch in results in a predictable problem: Shields simply has too many cooks in the kitchen.
Despite Droste’s diminished role, the Grizzly Bear formula is still firmly in place: Daniel Rossen’s gorgeously pure voice; flush, almost labyrinthine harmonies; and baroque flourishes like demure piano, organ, and flutes. Shields is as quilt-like as any of the band’s previous work, its purposeful chamber pop the result of dozens or more moving parts swirling around Rossen’s lonely center perch. Unfortunately, the complex arrangements are often rendered convoluted and messy by the band’s new writing-by-committee approach, and on songs such as “Sleeping Ute,” the majesty of the lead melody eventually gets caught up in a bulky, soggy wall of chasmal sound. Grizzly Bear has always been about nuance, but in weighing all of its members’ ideas equally, the band has imparted a gray, muddy quality to its musical complexity.
Shields still contains its dazzling moments: the starry, downward-trickling synths of “Gun-Shy,” for example, and the melancholic, grandiose tug of war of “Sun in Your Eyes,” one of the band’s best songs by any measure. Yet it’s also undeniable that Grizzly Bear has become somewhat apprehensive in the face of Veckatimest‘s effortless-sounding triumphs, and Shields feels like a move to distance themselves from those achievements. But while the band admirably seeks to avoid mimicking Veckatimest‘s themes, it neither expands on those motifs nor presents anything interesting in their place. Pretty but formless, Shields plays like a calculated retreat into something altogether indistinct and inconsequential.