On Grizzly Bear, on a Sunday morning


I was in on my own last night, which means turning the lights down, eating something I shouldn’t (lamb, or tiramisu, generally) and playing music louder than I would if Emma was home. And sometimes playing stuff I wouldn’t play if she was in – Swans or Talk Talk, perhaps.

Yesterday it meant digging out (literally, our belongings are still largely packed for moving, as they have been since the Olympics) the CD copy of Veckatimest from one of the boxes that our cats think are for them to sit on at the back of the room. I’ve listened to it quite a lot over the last few weeks since I got Shields, but always from an iPod, either via headphones or tiny desktop computer speakers at work or, a couple of times, via the more satisfying Zeppelin iPod dock. But I’ve been gagging to open it up properly on the big hifi again, through the Rega and out of the B&Ws. Because Grizzly Bear strike me as a band who very much care about sound, about depth and impact thereof. Their music has both incredible, microscopic detail and huge, sometimes overwhelming scale: the tiniest, most perfectly-rendered sounds and the grandest, most dramatic dynamic swings both having equal import.

I enjoyed every second of Veckatimest (which my iPad has learnt to spell) last night; I used to think it sagged a little momentum-wise in the middle, but Cheerleader and Ready, Able are now firm favourites as much as Southern Point and Two Weeks and Foreground always were. They’re that kind of band, one where repeat listens are rewarded, where familiarity doesn’t breed boredom but rather revelation.

With only cats, CDs, and a couple of glasses of wine for company, and paying a little more attention to lyrics than I normally do (I even looked at a couple of them in the booklet as I listened), I decided to look Grizzly Bear up on http://www.songmeanings.net to see what people were saying about them: what, for instance, do people think Southern Point is about? This was, of course, a mistake. “Like most songs, this is probably about a relationship.” “[K]nowing that your mind is the creation of all you see, and that all you see is the creation of your mind.” “[T]he pointlessness of Southern existence.” Etcetera, etcetera.

Prosaically, logically, Southern Point is probably about a place, about the island of Veckatimest which the band retreated to in order to write and record some of this album, a place they felt inspired by so much that they named the album after it (much like Yellow House). It is also about a relationship, but not in the predictable boy-loses-girl (or boy-loses-boy) way: it’s about a relationship between people and geography, between yourself and a place, about inner topographies finding solace in outer topographies. About escape.

But actually, Southern Point is about… Well. It’s about the drums, and the guitars, and the voices, and the melodies, and the spiralling momentum, and the beautiful, pointillist notes that open it with nary a whisper of the sublimating psychedelic climaxes to come. A song doesn’t have to mean something in any literally sense. A song is something. I have no idea what the beatific, angelic choir in Cheerleader means, what words they’re singing, what narrative they’re attempting to convey – I just know that it’s beautiful, that it moves me, that combined with those reverberating guitar chords, with that rhythm, with that voice over the top (“I’m shooting them myself / I should’ve made it matter”?) singing that melody, that it does something. I could analyse it, or try to, but I’d run the risk of dismembering what it is that I love. Maybe in my teens I’d have obsessed over the minutiae of the lyrics, piecing together messages and polemics and poetry. Maybe studying Barthes and post-structuralist theory a dozen years ago at university has ruined me for caring about words. Maybe, sometimes, one just doesn’t feel it necessary to try and find meaning from the words on their own when there seems to be so much purpose and emotion and communication and affect embedded in the whole thing.

I’ve still never heard Horn of Plenty, Grizzly Bear’s ostensible debut album, which is, as I understand it, essentially home-recordings made by Ed Droste. I got into them with Yellow House in 2006, their first album as a band, intrigued by the idea of a band, with instruments and voices, being signed to Warp Records, a label I had deliriously consumed experimental electronic music from for a decade. At first I didn’t quite understand, but slowly the strange, drifting, layered and intricate musical landscapes of Yellow House, redolent of folk, of jazz, of ambient music, began to seem like a strange cousin to what I knew from Warp: like Aphex Twin’s most beatific music, Grizzly Bear’s topographies can feel like they have emerged from dreams, can make you feel like you are caught in that half-state between sleep and waking where you’re not sure if you’re lucid. The way they play, the tempo-shifts, unexpected melodic turns, timbres that feel both ancient and brand new at the same time, reminds me more of jazz or electronic music than it does of indie rock. It doesn’t feel like the “talent gap” between what you strive for and what you can achieve is here. Sometimes the presence of that gap can make for thrilling accidental discoveries, but when a band seems as if they play without it, as if they think without it, that can make for even more exciting turns away from the obvious.

I’ve been thinking about trying to capture in words what it is about Grizzly Bear for some time now, since long before Shields came out. I’m aware that I’m guilty of talking about them a lot, of becoming “that guy who likes Grizzly Bear” and won’t shut up about it, but that there’s little substance to what I might say. I’ve still not managed to see them live (were we not teetering on the edge of house/life turning points, after six months of uncertainty and frustration and expense, I’d have rushed across the UK to see them this week, but plans and travel have been discarded for some time now); I’ve never heard the debut album; I can’t recall what half the songs are called while I’m listening to them, without the sleeve to hand. I just talk a lot. Write a lot.

One response to “On Grizzly Bear, on a Sunday morning

  1. Nick, here I am again, commenting. I’ve been following your work for years now and am often struck by our similarities despite some differences in where we were raised (me here in Canada, you over there) and age (although not that huge a difference by my reckoning). I’ve also been going through a love affair with Grizzly Bear. I started with Veckatimest based on the reviews and “Two Weeks” of course and although I’ve always liked it, it didn’t really strike me fully until recently when a business trip happened to coincide with their live appearance (in Seattle, they are not coming to my town, though I hope we might get added to a later leg). So I binged on Veckatimest and Shields in preparation and fell madly for them. I will have to say that the live experience really did impress me in many surprising ways that unfortunately can only be described as them being very good at what they do. Each of them are so good and they bring such variety to their performance – even just the combinations of voices gave a real diversity to the show (Ed on his own for a song, then Ed and Daniel, then Daniel, Ed with Chris Taylor for one, back to Daniel with harmonies from the other three etc.). Plus, the drums! Chris Bear did more with a floor tom and a tambourine on his foot for the encore than many drummers can do with a full kit. If you can catch them live some time, please do. (From my experience, they did no songs from the debut live and only maybe three from Yellow House – although I did pick it up the next day just for those few – it was definitely a set list heavy on the most recent two records).

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