A Grizzly Bear song sounds like four people having a spirited argument about their conflicting definitions of beauty. This makes the music they create together an unusual mixture of pretty and barbed. “We would never sit in a room and all stare at each other,” singer Ed Droste said recently, of the band’s writing process. “That’s so not how we work. If everyone’s in the room, it’s a little bit like too many cooks in the kitchen.” Instead, they work on fragments of songs individually, sometimes in pairs, and then reconvene and try to jam their compositions together like sonic puzzle pieces. Sometimes it’s harmonious; just as often, sharp edges jut out. It requires a very particular alchemy of personalities for a band to work productively this way, let alone to exist for over a decade without an explosive breakup. But somehow, the strange brew of Droste’s sonorous croon, Daniel Rossen’s adventurous guitar playing, Chris Taylor’s junkyard-gearhead experimentation, and Chris Bear’s avant-garde drumming remains as potent as ever.
Grizzly Bear’s story is one of gradual accumulation. The band began, in 2002, as Droste’s casual solo project: The first Grizzly Bear album, Horn of Plenty, is a self-recorded collection of urgent, mournful bedroom pop, its lo-fi sound a far cry from the pristine production for which the band would later come to be known. (“My recording technique was … very untrained,” he said later. “Everyone was like, ‘So you must be a really big fan of lo-fi bands A, B, C, etc.,’ but actually I really just didn’t know that much about microphones.”) Droste’s friend Chris Bear added some percussion to the tracks after the initial recordings, and eventually decided to join the group full-time. Bear’s NYU roommate Chris Taylor helped round out the Grizzly Bear sound live, offered to produce the next album, and—what the hell—decided to join the band, too. Taylor also suggested that his friend, a somewhat reserved but virtuosically talented guitarist named Daniel Rossen, join up too. Although he was a prolific writer (and a member of the duo Department of Eagles), Rossen had never played music on stage—he let only his closest friends hear the things he’d written. Joining Grizzly Bear turned him overnight into a performer, and his lightning-strike riffs exploded Droste’s modest songs into lyrical epics.
The entire story of Grizzly Bear can be told in the two different versions of its song “Alligator.” The first is a muted, lonely, singsongy sonic collage assembled by Droste, and clocking in at a minute and a half. Three years later, the band released an updated version of the song on the excellent 2007 EP Friend. That one stretches more than five minutes, and adds the contributions of such mid-aughts indie-rock luminaries as Beirut’s Zach Condon and the Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman and Dave Longstreth. Led by Rossen’s luminescent guitar, “Alligator” 2.0 bloomed into an arty, populous jam session. The confines of the bedroom-pop genre were too small to hold Grizzly Bear: Droste’s collaborators had come along and blown out the windows, torn off the roof, and exposed a vast and glittering sky.
One of my favorite pastimes while working at my college radio station was arguing with people who thought Grizzly Bear were boring. And for a moment there, especially if you were the sort of person who spent hours a day hanging out at a college radio station, these haters were legion. Though it would have been hard to imagine when Droste made Horn of Plenty, there came a time when the band became famous enough to inspire a kind of backlash—probably having to do with a 2009 New York magazine cover that heralded them as one of the purveyors of “Brooklyn’s Sonic Boom.” They shared the cover with the Dirty Projectors and MGMT, although the latter band was less often grouped with them than feral rockers Animal Collective; the three bands came to signify whatever the empty phrase “Brooklyn hipster” was supposed to sound like. That label might have stuck if you gave nothing more than a cursory listen to Grizzly Bear’s 2006 Yellow House, a record of artisanal-brand folk sprinkled with banjos, acoustic guitars, and clean, choir-boy harmonies. But by the time the “Brooklyn hipster” narrative caught up with them, in 2009, they were making much odder and more challenging music. The stereotype was always a stretch: Grizzly Bear were a little too anomalous to stand for something larger than themselves. By 2012, when they appeared on the cover of New York a second time, they were promoting their fourth studio album, Shields, a knotty, uncommercial album that sounded more like Aja-era Steely Dan than it did something you’d expect to hear while ordering a $6 pour-over.
If “Brooklyn’s Sonic Boom” ever was an actual phenomenon, it’s over now. No one from Grizzly Bear lives in New York City anymore (Rossen splits his time between upstate New York and Arizona; the other three decamped for L.A.). Dirty Projectors have pulled a kind of Reverse Grizzly Bear, shedding members until the name became a megaphone for the band’s contentious founder and frontman, Dave Longstreth. (Coffman left the band after she and Longstreth broke up; earlier this year, he released an uncomfortably intimate album about it.) Animal Collective have splintered, with the band’s members flung across the globe and focusing more intently on solo material. But Grizzly Bear, again against the trend, are not only continuing to make music together: They’re making some of the best music of their career.
Painted Ruins, their fifth full-length, is the punchiest record Grizzly Bear have ever made. The drums at the foreground of “Mourning Sound” slap like cold water to the face; “Cut-Out” takes a hairpin turn from pastoral to pummeling. It’s their most percussion-heavy album, which means it’s a showcase for Chris Bear’s extraordinarily expressive drumming. (“Watching Chris playing drums is something to behold,” Chris Taylor said in a recent interview. “It’s like Christmas, a little bit. A gift.”)
Bear’s drumming is perhaps best on display on “Four Cypresses,” one of Painted Ruins’ loveliest moments and, for my money, one of the best songs Grizzly Bear’s ever made. Rossen and Taylor recently broke down the process of writing that track on the podcast Song Exploder; given the complexity of your average Grizzly Bear song, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this was one of the show’s longest episodes. Like most songs on Painted Ruins, “Four Cypresses” has a lot of moving parts, and it was almost comical to hear Taylor and Rossen tick off layer after layer of sounds they’d experimented with here: pedal steel, celeste, synthesizer, Clavinets … again with the story of gradual accumulation. Taylor admitted that, in a band this interested in excess, a crucial part of songwriting is removing the inessential. “You’re just like, ‘OK, [we have] this amorphous brick of weight—what can we lose?’” he said. “It’s really fun to whack things out. It’s cleansing.”
Grizzly Bear become more baroque with each album, and this is usually a good thing: As they’ve matured, their songs have bloomed into entire sonic universes. My only qualm with Painted Ruins, though, is that I sometimes miss those moments of simplicity and pause—even boredom. Veckatimest, their 2009 breakthrough, remains my favorite Grizzly Bear album not because every song was a highlight, but because of how it was paced. The thickly layered songs were all the more impressive because of the stark, quiet moments that broke them up—the aqueous “Dory” or the stunning, Droste-led piano ballad “Foreground.”
Grizzly Bear often describe themselves as a “democracy,” meaning that rather than ascribe to the traditional frontman-led formation, all four members contribute equally to the band. (Although given the recent distortions of Americans’ example of the word “democracy,” maybe they’d be better off calling themselves a socialist collective.) The element that feels out of balance on Painted Ruins, though, is Droste’s “untrained” ear for straightforward melodies and the ambience in a quiet room. They’re at their best when there’s a push and pull not only between band members, but between minimalism and excess. Still, the moments when Grizzly Bear manage to find their balance amount to some of loveliest rock music being made today. Painted Ruins sounds like nothing so much as the most mellifluous argument you’ve ever heard. Rossen says it best on “Four Cypresses”: “It’s chaos, but it works.”