Essential New Music: Grizzly Bear’s “Painted Ruins”

It’s no slight to claim that Painted Ruins contains strong trace elements of Radiohead circa OK Computer. Thom Yorke and Co. selected the Brooklyn quartet to open for their 2008 tour, and Jonny Greenwood called them his favorite band at the time. The album is full of anxiety and tension, stocked with woozy melodies that float atop precise rhythms and dramatically calibrated guitars; it foregrounds its attention to detail.

Painted Ruins, the fourth Grizzly Bear LP (not counting 2004’s Horn Of Plenty, which was essentially an Edward Droste solo recording), ends a self-imposed hiatus following 2012’s Shields. It was written in fits and starts via long-distance correspondence, with the band members split between East and West coasts, vocalist/guitarist Daniel Rossen in upstate New York, drummer Christopher Bear in Brooklyn, bassist Chris Taylor and vocalist Edward Droste in L.A. Those instrument roles are very slippery: Everyone aside from Droste plays multiple instruments, and everyone sings.

Painted Ruins itself is slippery: It’s sharply focused—and sonically beautiful—but also abstract, with an open-ended feeling to the swooping voices and lyrical ambiguities. “Great disaster, shocking sight/Scream and run or test your might,” Rossen sings on “Aquarian,” one of several tracks with political undercurrents. “With every passing day/Our history fades away/And I’m not sure why/There’s nothing left to say,” sings Droste on “Neighbors,” and he could be singing about America or about the husband he recently divorced.

Like the Antlers or Wild Beasts or, yes, Radiohead, Grizzly Bear makes records that draw you deeply into their textures and drama, with lyrics that explore feelings of alienation and uncertainty. The result is strangely comforting and compelling.

Steve Klinge