Listening to indie rock band Grizzly Bear’s Painted Ruins is a bit like looking around a modern art museum. For the most part, the atmosphere is reflective and hushed. Like colors on an abstract canvas, some of the songs run in mysterious directions, rife with surprising sonic changes and lyrics that are open to interpretation. There are plenty of parts that are meant to be patiently appreciated rather than gleefully enjoyed. That’s central to the album’s quiet beauty, though. Like Shields before it, it doesn’t have the “accessible indie” feel that some songs on Veckatimest possessed—but that’s okay, because its understated thoughtfulness is a different type of gift.
The album begins with “Wasted Acres,” surely the most beautiful song ever written about an ATV. “Trust in your machine/the kick and the wheeze/that hauls for the winter,” Dan Rossen, one of the band’s two vocalists, intones earnestly, somehow making the act of riding the vehicle sound like a spiritual experience. The song’s steady rhythm calls to mind images of gliding through the woods, while its near rhymes—“Were you even listening?/TRX 250”—add to its obscure allure.
Next up is “Mourning Sound,” a single whose smooth vocals and sparkling synths give it an ‘80s new wave feel. It’s glossy and easy to swallow, but it doesn’t contain any of the album’s most memorable moments. Those come when Grizzly Bear dares to get ambitious—as it does two tracks later in “Three Rings,” a sprawling track that begins with upbeat percussion and then adopts a more subdued tone as it grows toward a haunting climax. Perhaps the best thing about the song is the collaboration evident between the various members of the band. Ed Droste, the other lead vocalist, sings questions like “Is that the way it is?” and “Don’t you know that I can make it better?” in a smooth, wistful tone. Meanwhile, haunting guitar riffs swirl around a solemn bassline, the drums maintaining their urgent rhythm all the while. The last two minutes of the song are the most enthralling part, a tempest of swirling minor key melodies.
“Losing All Sense,” the next track, is another standout. You can hear the faint echoes of “Two Weeks,” Grizzly Bear’s most popular song, in this one. Although “Two Weeks” sounds a bit bolder and brighter, “Losing All Sense” possesses some of the elements that made “Two Weeks” an indie hit, such as a prominent keyboard part, percussion that sounds like it was written for somebody walking with a purpose, and a structure that’s pretty much pop (although the song does drift into a psych rock coda about a minute away from the end). “Cut-Out” is also notable with a rollicking beat and a groovy bassline.
“Glass Hillside” is just as impressive, but totally different. It begins as a pure folk song complete with suspenseful guitar strumming and fable-esque lyrics about “lost sons trained in the tricks of the world.” Then electronic noises kick in, and the song takes on a sort of eerie carnival vibe. It’s hard to glean a plot from the lyrics, but the phrases that are sung in a muted, foreboding tone in the background at one point—“The sound of nothing… There is no hiding”—convey a feeling of entrapment that makes the song darkly intriguing. Next up is “Neighbors.” The sounds are interesting enough, but the story is what seizes your attention here. Through lyrics like “Face to face/We’ll watch our bodies break/Not a care in the world,” Grizzly Bear tells the captivating tale of people who could have a solid bond, but for whatever reason, forget their history together.
Painted Ruins ends not with a bang, but with the rambling sound of “Sky Took Hold.” After it fades out, the main aspect of the album that’ll stay with you is its cinematic quality. With its softly sung lyrics and spiraling musical changes, there’s something about it that seems well suited for the fall and winter, so keep these songs handy in the coming months.