Don’t let the twinkly synths and lush instrumentation fool you: Painted Ruins is undoubtedly Grizzly Bear’s darkest record yet. It exhumes bodies of broken relationships and broken promises, existential dread and fears of self-doubt, and puts us face to face with worldly chaos. Across 11 tracks which vary both in style and substance, the quartet takes listeners down a dark path with creaky steps and slippery handrails, only to come out on the other end feeling refreshed and a little wiser than before.
The record opens on a calm yet longing note with “Wasted Acres,” which puts the question not only to the song’s subject but also to us: “Were you even listening / Were you riding with me?” It’s a tacit invitation that also functions as a call to attention. Like all of the band’s records, the lyrics are just as important as the music, and the album’s impressionistic portraits of lost loves contrasts well with its more ornate instrumentals: on early single and standout “Mourning Sound,” singer Ed Droste croons, “Let love age / And watch it burn out and die” over a catchy bassline and synth flair.
Many of the songs here are straightforward pop, such as the bouncy “Losing All Sense,” which pits spiky guitars against push-and-pull drums and arpeggios. “Cut-Out” ends up sounding happy and upbeat despite its challenging, kaleidoscopic lyrics, with Pixies-style soft verses and booming choruses. These are some of Grizzly Bear’s most accessible moments on any of their albums, and recall tracks like “While You Wait For the Others” from Veckatimest and “Yet Again” from their last record, 2012’s Shields.
Other tracks take the album’s gloomy side more literally, giving listeners eerie minor chords and crackling guitars. “Four Cypresses” wobbles around an army camp drumbeat and Daniel Rossen’s haunting vocal. “It’s chaos but it works,” he sings, in what might be the perfect soundbite to describe the song. Later on, “Aquarian” sounds downright sinister with carnivalesque synths and choral vocals that always sound close to swerving off course. The track ends with the refrain “never reach the end,” making its rough and unfinished sound literal.
The album ends on a somewhat hopeful, if a little defeatist note, wherein Droste engages in some much-needed self reflection: “Since I was a young boy it was always there / Inside me growing none of it seems fair / I’ve come to accept it let it take the stage / and leave me helpless watching from the wings.” It’s a song that begins fairly typically and transitions into a louder and more harsh outro, ending as though a new song is just about to begin, continuing the abbreviated sound of tracks like “Aquarian” and standout “Three Rings.”
Despite some bright spots, Painted Ruins is a difficult and demanding listen, with themes of loss and insecurity pervading throughout. Its influences are far flung, including musical tributes to artists like Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead, R.E.M., and even Joy Division — but more than anything, this record sounds like Grizzly Bear, or at least a version of the band that it was always meant to be. Its odd and sometimes dissonant sound may turn off listeners looking for the next “Two Weeks,” but those willing to give it a little more patience will find a rewarding record that ranks with the band’s best.
Words by Max James Hill