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The Entropy Is a Cruel Mistress Award

By Brent Ables | 13 December 2012

Tie :: Grizzly Bear: Shields and Animal Collective: Centipede Hz

That the potential of time is also its sorrow is more or less a scientific fact at this point. Never mind that artists and thinkers have been telling us this since Sophocles: we in the post-Enlightment age had to formulate a mechanism for quantifying our own collapse before we could believe in it. And I know full well the crushing, mortality-reinforcing disappointment of watching something I love bloom, shine, and wither away in real time. Perhaps because it feels so close to home. It’s like watching the fire fade from an old friend’s eyes: they communicate a loss to you through the mutual history you share together. History which feels, increasingly, like exactly that.

In 2009, Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear were American indie rock’s royalty. Animal Collective had a good half-decade of rising hype and acclaim behind them before they dropped the mighty Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009). Grizzly Bear, too, had high expectations ahead, having thrown a truly unparalleled party a few years prior at their Yellow House (2006). Both Merriweather and Veckatimest (2009), moreover, were preceded by stellar singles that I don’t hesitate now to call classic—“My Girls” and “Two Weeks”—and which had the depth to back up the grade-A surface. That both acts peaked in concert with this anticipation was a wonderful thing for all to behold.

Skip to three years later. Animal Collective, having spent that time busy being all the things that are outside of them, release a bizarrely titled record with a bizarrely terrible cover. Fanboy that I was, I still set aside time the night the album streamed to give it a few listens. I don’t know what I expected, exactly, but what I got was thoroughly unappealing, a grating mess built around a persistent, jagged collapse of momentum. Not that I’m not down with the confrontational side of the Collective; 2005’s Feels is still my favorite moment in their discography. But this felt like a regression to a pre-Sung Tongs (2004) aesthetic, but without all that nascent energy they were plowing through at the time. It’s a confrontation that just seems forced. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about this band over the years, it’s that the next album is probably going to be totally unlike the last. In this case, that’s a comfort.

Then there’s Grizzly Bear. Yellow House, that lovely anachronistic explosion of psych-folk doo-wop neo-soul grandeur, is a record that played an important part in a moment of my life. I’ll love it always. Veckatimest, too, is a thing of beauty. And it is for these reasons that I am so utterly befuddled by this polite shell of sound called Shields. It is not a difficult album to listen to; on the contrary, what usually happens when I put it on is that I forget that it is even playing at all. Then I start to get bored, and then more bored, and then I think, “why am I not listening to music right now?”

I still can’t fully articulate an answer to that question. I’m not the only person on CMG’s masthead to comment on how inexplicably dull this record is, to be sure, but it also has its defenders here. And it’s not as though Grizzly Bear has ever been a particularly vibrant outfit. But the winding, somnolent drift of “Lullabye”; the slow-burning, cinematic grandeur of “Little Brother”; even the steady pop lilt of “Cheerleader”—such subtle and meticulous dynamism can only find a home in a listener’s soul if that dynamism has a certain, vital openness: a space for me to curl up inside and get cozy with for the winter. Shields just feels bare, exposed, like a nocturnal creature dragged into the pale sun on an overcast day. It feels like an old animal who knows the old tricks. (Flamenco guitar breaks, anyone?) In short, to me, it feels like watching a friend become a hollow husk in real time. I’m not sure there’s anything that makes me sadder than that.