By Calum Marsh | 20 May 2009
Grizzly Bear are not an obvious candidate for divisiveness. Their baronial chamber pop is as pleasant as it is inoffensive, and yet Veckatimest, perhaps my favorite album of the year so far, is met by both groans and yawns in equal measure. That a leak’s been accessible for well over two months has given the wily torrent-pillagers time to let this one soak in, to see if first impressions settle or flip, and the result’s both curious and telling. For some this is a veritable “grower,” benefiting the kind of time and attention regrettably neglected when you’d rather keep up with the three anticipated LPs dropping each week, while others simply find it intolerably dull. Even around the CMG watercooler there are at least as many dissenters as there are proponents. Veckatimest, you are boring Conrad. Chet said “snooze.” Somebody called them “Grizzly Bore.”
Veckatimest is not a boring album, but neither is it especially exciting. It’s the kind of deliberately-paced sleeper that requires oblique descriptors exactly like “deliberately-paced” and “sleeper,” as its pacing—yes, quite slow—and execution ask more than most people are willing to invest on cursory listens. After hearing a full and proper version, it’s easy to understand why frontman Ed Droste was so disappointed about the leaking of such a poor quality rip those two months ago. Grizzly Bear have always demanded headphones and full attention, but Veckatimest sees their previous insularity, from Horn Of Plenty (2004)‘s bedroom to Yellow House (2006)‘s cabin sojourn, replaced by the expansiveness of a professional studio. As it turns out, the move was as fruitful as it was natural, Grizzly Bear’s trademark warmth and august complimented by the depth of the record’s production. The result is extravagantly, but never self-indulgently, heavy.
“Southern Point” kicks off steadily, if not emphatically, with a relatively simple folk rock verse of shambly guitar and Daniel Rossen’s quivering tenor. But when those drums kick in as the track scuttles past the one minute mark, Rossen now shouting, “In the end / You’ll never find,” the song blooms and everything just clicks. “Southern Point” finds Grizzly Bear employing the same slow-burn misdirect that made Yellow House gem “On A Neck, On A Spit” so striking; here the convention’s been revitalized and expanded, the pop reveal blown up staggeringly, so that when it hits it hits hard. As an album opener, it makes quite a statement: we payed a lot for this studio, and we’re gonna make the most of it. But at this point, even so early, Veckatimest just sounds so pristine that it’s hard to fault the band for such a lavish treatment of the core material. If it wasn’t previously clear, allow “Southern Point” to elucidate: Grizzly Bear want to sound and have in fact always wanted to sound enormous, and they pull it off fabulously.
Not willing to let the pop high come down so soon, first single “Two Weeks” drops the opener’s inconspicuousness in favor of a more traditional pop structure, leading in with a staccato piano line and group vocal harmonies. The track finds inspiration primarily in the ’50s/‘60s girl groups Droste and company so revere, and like the Crystal’s “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss),” a cover of which was a live staple for years before appearing on their Friend EP in 2007, it masks heartbreak in malaise and aggression in self-deception: “I told you I would stay,” Droste croons, his restraint subversively expressive, “Would you always / maybe sometimes / Make it easy / take your time.” It’s an obvious high point, more ostensibly “spectacular” than anything else here, though so much energy expended so early gives way to some pacing issues as the albums rolls on.
If “All We Ask” begins to feel like a bit of a let down coming after “Two Weeks,” the disappointment is only fleeting. What begins as a plodding folk number with a fairly predictable quiet verse/loud chorus structure culminates in a striking Rossen and Droste refrain of “I can’t / get out / of what I’m into / with you.” This theme of long-term relationship alienation and an inability to either reconcile differences or pick up and leave recurs across the record, making for some biting sentiments: “You’ll try, you’ll try, you’ll try / to keep us apart,” Rossen sings bitterly on “I Live With You,” sounding like a character in a Richard Yates novel; “Don’t put me on / Don’t make me beg.”
Veckatimest bears its sole lull with “Dory,” meandering like the beginning of “All We Ask” without any kind of turnaround or reveal. But even as a regrettable dud it serves the purpose of making its followup, “Ready, Able,” all the more satisfying. With its propulsive bassline and distinctive solo, it is possibly the least Grizzly Bear-like song in the band’s catalogue, yet also one of their strongest. “I’m gonna take a stab at this / I’m sure you will be alright,” Droste begins, leading into the album’s most endearing line, “Five years, countless months and loans / Hope I’m ready, able to make my own good home,” as strings and murky backing vocals come in and bring the album to a goddamn fever pitch. It’s anxious, unsettling, and totally sublime—a quality Grizzly Bear have difficulty maintaining across the album’s respectable second half, topped only by stunning closer “Foreground.” Like In Rainbows‘ (2007) “Videotape,” the song—a “bitter, elusive dirge on fortunate and fame,” as Boogz pointed out in his track review—diverges drastically from the excess of the material which precedes it.
It should come as no surprise if Veckatimest is a career-making record for Grizzly Bear. It’s a sophisticated work, delicately and meticulously crafted, and its effete pleasantness lends itself as well to Late Night performances as New Yorker coverage. It really does feel like the band is hitting their stride here, and whether you’re @replying Ed on Twitter or preordering the deluxe vinyl two months early, it’s not hard to get swept up in the phenomenon. So let the dissenters come, let them yawn their counterpoints, let Chet sleep through it all. I’ll keep on loving this band and this record, engaged and enthralled with every listen.