Sonically speaking, Grizzly Bear shouldn’t be the sort of band described as “difficult.” Close listens to their early work like 2006’s Yellow House prove they have a knack for writing slower but very complex and beautiful melodies replete with vocal harmonies. It’s not nearly post-rock, as there is far too much verse-chorus-verse structure contained within the songs and not nearly enough explosive crescendos and waves of sound. A better comparison would be to call them a less poppy version of that other animal band Fleet Foxes, because while their songs more often than not lack dynamic hooks, they make up for it in pure pastoral folk atmosphere. Of course there are moments on 2009’s Veckatimest such as “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait for the Others” that felt like they should have been massive hits but failed to fully connect for one reason or another. On their new album Shields, Grizzly Bear seem to have fallen off the map once again, pushing aside the small gains they made in the mainstream music world in favor of staying true to themselves and the purest of songcraft. They still sound rather effectively like themselves, as in you’re not going to mistake them for another band, but the ease and charm by which they worked their magic last time has been scaled back in favor of a much more cerebral and measured approach. The melodies reach a new level of complexity and detail, positively oozing with glorious ambience and texture. Opening track “Sleeping Ute” bounces, weaves and rolls like waves on a choppy but positively electric sea as the band stuffs a truckload of sounds into it. You absolutely need to devote time and effort to allow yourself to be absorbed in the world this record inhabits, and such precise attention winds up well rewarded with each successive listen. Much like Beach House’s latest album Bloom, this is a record less concerned with breaking new ground and more insistent on condensing the band’s strengths into something more potent and captivating than they’ve ever done before. The person who excels at this the most on this particular record is Daniel Rossen. He’s never quite been the shining star of Grizzly Bear (that honor goes to Ed Droste), and occasionally he’ll have a clunky song (see “Dory” on Veckatimest) or a quieter one (see “Deep Blue Sea” on Yellow House) amidst a gem like “While You Wait for the Others.” In the time since the band’s last record, he’s kept busy by recording and releasing a solo EP, which didn’t venture very far from anything he’d done previously. It made him a better songwriter and composer though, as his tracks “Speak in Rounds” and “A Simple Answer” are two of the album’s best moments. Of course there are quite a few of those when your record functions as a proverbial highlight reel of original music. Droste’s times to shine happen on the single “Yet Again” along with “Gun Shy” towards the end of the record. Of course it is those final two tracks “Half Gate” and “Sun in Your Eyes” that truly raise the bar for Grizzly Bear and any band that sounds like them. They swell with the sort of brightness and beauty you expect them to explode at any moment out of sheer intensity. So much of Shields is a dark and lonely journey punctuated by remarkable arrangements, but the last 12 or so minutes break free from that depression and that feeling is simply euphoric. Just when you think there’s no way Grizzly Bear can top themselves, here’s a record that proves they can. May there be many more as fundamentally challenging as this one in their future.