In 2006, Grizzly Bear was a fledgling four-piece band, operating in anonymity out of Brooklyn with just a single, seldom-heard, full-length album to its name.
That all changed on Sept. 6 of that year, when indie-rock kingmaker Pitchfork awarded the group’s second album, Yellow House, its coveted “Best New Music” label, accompanying that status-making mark with a sterling review. Pitchfork made a giant leap in endorsing Yellow House, a sea-stained collection of baroque musical compositions, melancholy avant-garde experimentalism, and harmonious vocal performances. The high praise propelled Grizzly Bear’s career, and the group has not looked back since, producing a series of albums that perfected and built upon its languid formula.
Yet if Yellow House arrived today, it would likely fly well below the radar, according to Ed Droste, Grizzly Bear’s vocalist, guitarist, and founding member.
“I cannot imagine making music like we do right now, in this climate,” says Droste, whose group plays two nights at the Warfield on Dec. 11 and 12. “I don’t really know how any new band trying to do something creative and cool can rise to the surface. All of these tastemaking sites that used to champion these kind of groups are much more interested in talking about pop stars and Stranger Things 2.”
Droste’s not-so-veiled barb at sites like Pitchfork — which has taken a decidedly more mainstream approach to reviewing music in recent years — is not born out of simple vanity. Grizzly Bear has a classic “grower” sound — a discordant mix of unnerving, beautiful, dense, and challenging tracks that requires multiple listens for full appreciation. Lacking the immediacy of catchy pop songs, it is easy to see how Grizzly Bear could get lost in the mix of today’s frenetic music landscape.
“The funny thing is, we think some of our songs are super-poppy,” Droste says. “But we understand that for many people, our music kind of takes five listens for something to click. We are fortunate to have a loyal fan base at this point, because people just don’t have the attention spans nowadays, with this everything-at-your-fingertips playlist lifestyle.”
After maintaining a low profile in recent times, Grizzly Bear emerged in August with the release of Painted Ruins, its fifth album and the first since 2012. The album is a methodical, brooding masterwork, blending ominous downbeat elegies with buzzing, krautrock numbers and pristine chamber-pop pieces. Between Grizzly Bear albums, Droste divorced his husband, and although he insists that Painted Ruins is not a breakup album, melancholia seeps into every song. Like all Grizzly Bear releases, Painted Ruins evokes an array of emotions, but the singular takeaway from the record is its gorgeous, immaculate production.
Like its predecessors, Painted Ruins is driven by the twin-singing styles of Droste and Daniel Rossen, who complement each other seamlessly. Rossen’s vocals are more hushed and even-keeled, while Droste hits on the higher registers, although the duo borrow increasingly more from each other on the new album.
Overall, Grizzly Bear is a paragon of democracy, with each member putting forth equal contributions. Chris Taylor, the group’s bass player (among other duties), produced the album, and Christopher Bear (real name), who is ostensibly the band’s drummer, played everything from Wurlitzer to pedal steel to synths on the new record.
“I’m hard-pressed to think of bands where there is such a democracy,” says Droste, who started the group as a solo bedroom recording project. “I feel very grateful to have three other people who have such strong musical talents and who all have the ability to write songs.”
That democratic style, plus the group’s ongoing commitment to explore new boundaries and mine new depths, probably means that a pop hit — or, at least one that will capture Pitchfork’s attention — is unlikely for Grizzly Bear.
“It has been interesting to see other bands make these attempts at pop music,” Droste says. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I can’t really imagine us having the type of songs that get played on the radio, but who knows, maybe one day, something like that will come to us organically. I doubt it, though.”
Fortunately for Grizzly Bear, they are not in a phase of their career where they are desperate for radio airplay. While other new groups borrow tropes from pop’s hitmakers, Droste and company will continue to pursue art that is disarmingly genuine and true to themselves. And no one needs the talking heads at Pitchfork to explain why that kind of music is great.
Grizzly Bear with serpentwithfeet, Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 11-12, at the Warfield, thewarfieldtheatre.com.