Ruins. Meditating on the word can bring forth the idea of failure, of an age that has passed and left its crumbling buildings and forgotten ideas. I imagine chapels being taken over by jungle vines or the remnants of a civilization toppling into the sea. It’s not something we think can happen to the society we live in now, that great monstrosity of Western culture with its skyscrapers and smartphones.
On Grizzly Bear’s newest effort, “Painted Ruins,” the four-piece Brooklyn band captures the chaos, anxiety, and wonder of living in the 21st Century. Our age is one of incredible scientific breakthrough and encroaching terror. All around us is an environment that is changing more rapidly than we even begin to grasp, as social and political upheavals seem to happen overnight and are broadcast all over the internet. The energy is all around us, whether we like it or not.
One of the new album’s singles, “Four Cypresses,” draws us slowly into a syncopated web of drums and synthetic backdrop. The puzzle-like combination of instrumentation and song structure works perfectly here, guitars jangling left and right as the song rises and falls in vocal choruses and atypical chord changes. The sonic effect is as mysterious as the lyrics themselves, which are oblique even in their plainest use of language:
“Four cypresses torn from the roadside
Great thundering noise from the hillside
Some thousands of years built it up
Some crumbling form to be torn down”
Moody atmosphere colors much of “Painted Ruins,” accenting the soulful cries of Ed Droste, Grizzly bear’s singer. It’s also heavy on layered and morphing beatwork, which adds a fractured feeling to the record that matches our rapidly changing world. The anxious feeling the sounds evoke seems to draw in and out in a breath all its own, either in excitement or dread of the chaotic times we live in. Depending how you see it, the album oozes both feelings simultaneously.
The sights and sound of technology and nature both make appearances in the gaps of “Painted Ruins,” like the “dreadful sound” of an airplane in “Four Cypresses” or the “dusty vista” mentioned in “Sky Took Hold.” As the lyrics deal with identity and relationships, the external world slowly sneaks in, sometimes enlightening us or adding to the confusion.
The anxiousness of love moves into the mix on “Three Rings.” Here, the singer begs his partner to see them from another angle and stay, making promises of how things could be:
The song begins by asking, but then becomes demanding. In such an age of insecurity that we live in, love and feelings can become a refuge we hold on to. The narrator of “Three Rings” is searching for security when he sings “Don’t you ever leave me,” looking for something that won’t change in world that is morphing in front of their eyes.
What we need in this age is metamorphosis. On “Cut-Out,” Droste sings about the only way we can deal with the anxiousness of these times:
“Medicine is not what I need
Inhale your older self
Cut it up and let it go”
Although Grizzly Bear doesn’t find the experimental pop magic of “Two Weeks” on this record, “Painted Ruins” is still an exciting trip with a band that knows how to make finely crafted and sonically interesting music. Definitely a record that requires multiple listens to dissect its intricate sound, unfolding in layers of ideas.