More than any other release this year, Veckatimest is an album that begs to be listened to whole. Lyrical themes and moods are shared; songs often serve as miniature symphonies within themselves, album opener Southern Point seems endless, moving through movement after movement that not only sets the scene for the whole show, but seems to be a show of its own – turns out it’s barely over five minutes long. Relentlessly written in the minor key, it has one tempo: mid. And it’s mostly all rather stately chamber-pop. This is Grizzly Bear after all. Guitars intertwine with one another, glistening just enough to shimmer on top of the warm fuzz of the bass which creates that familiar autumnal swirl and there are harmonies, lots of harmonies. That’s pretty much it. Such brave, unified statements are rare – rarer still in the singles driven climate. Even the most cohesive and mulled over records seem to make notable concessions to the need to have an opening gambit to draw in punters.
Sure, after the opening curtain of South Point there’s lead single Two Weeks, now quite ubiquitous and more than suited for radio play, but it’s within bounds and doesn’t so much as shatter the album’s aesthetic as accentuate and help get it underway. Its ornate staccato piano riff, rich vocal harmonies, deep, crashing bass and Ed Droste’s mournful croon (all elements present throughout the rest of the album) set each other off perfectly and deliver one of the most moreish slices of bittersweet baroque pop since The Beach Boys.
On the other end of Vecktaimest’s spectrum is album closer is Foreground. Also piano led, the piece acts as a settling closing action in the shadow of the fireworks of I Live With You (one of the rare moments where the album threatens to take off into full-on rock territory). Though essentially the credits roll of the band’s panoramic movie, it still more than holds its own. The circular piano melody is perfectly delicate and stripped down; Droste’s trembling falsetto lies in stark contrast to his warm, soaring croon on Two Weeks; it’s the negative image of its poppy harmonies in every way and bookends the record perfectly by completing the showcase of the album’s tonal extremes.
Despite this stylistic uniformity, Veckatimest is not dull, tiring or even a particularly difficult album. As well as the aforementioned piano led tracks, While You Wait For The Others, Cheerleader and Ready, Able all provide the necessary hooks to keep you satisfied on those sometime difficult initial listens, but the real joy comes from appreciating the album whole.
To rope in The Beach Boys again, as Pet Sounds is, for me, the sound of the dog days of a California Summer were relationships have begun to fade like the weather after an initial short and joyful burst, Veckatimest inspires images of the autumnal countryside, isolation and, well, what I imagine the particular New England corner of the world to be like. The rich bass tone; the hazy, shimmering guitar tone and the floaty, transient vocals are all evocative of this time and place before you even get to the barely noticed touches of echoed laughter, radio chatter and a dozen other incidental touches buried deep within the layered production. It’s a credit to the effort put into the album’s aesthetic that such lucid imagery is possible.
This imagery is reinforced in the album’s lyrics as well. The quiet/loud dynamic of All We Ask initially seems typical in the wake of Two Weeks, Droste opens the song on a hopeful note, “In this old house, I’m not alone/ In a bedroom, a telephone” but why what would be an anthemic outcry against loneliness and the strengths of communication is sung in such a tender and delicate voice – especially in comparison to Droste’s assured croon on Two Weeks – is made clear in the closing verse where Droste and Rossen harmonise a refrain “I can’t / get out / of what I’m into / with you” which is delivered with a curious regret. Later, in the brief lull between the staggering squalls of majestic guitars on Fine For Now Rossen repeatedly questions an anonymous lover, “If we’re all faltering, how’d I help with that? /If it’s all or nothing, then let me go.” Droste’s mournful cries in the background only lend to the trance like quality of the lyric that sticks in the mind, the crashing guitar break that follows signifies a catalyst for action and escape.
With the grand designs evident in every other department of Veckatimest, you won’t be surprised to learn how immaculately produced it is. The band have indulged a clear interest in the production side of things; repeated listens are not only rewarded with the songs complex compositions, lyrics and hooks, but with previously unnoticed layers of guitar buried deep in the mix, disembodied groans and delicate drum fills revealing themselves over time. As with the album’s unified style, it’s a wonderful gesture to make in the face of 128k transcode leaks and the over proliferation of crappy iPod headphones that displays a wonderful passion for their craft.
Sure, there’s a slight mid-album slump – if you could really call songs like Dory or About Face slumps. In a sense they only are due the staggering quality of the rest of the album and as the album’s symphonic outlook shuns immediate highlights for a slower burn, it also lifts lesser tracks.
Veckatimest is a mighty album. One of the year’s best. Its overarching artistic ambition may be its biggest fault, but it’s also the album’s biggest credit – and, as faults go, it’s a rather small one. Sure, as many people will be turned away by the band’s stately approach as are turned on by what a grower it is; people might find it all a little dull, a little too deliberate and precisely paced. If you weren’t a fan of opulent chamber-pop or weedy psych-folk before, this is unlikely to change your mind, but there’s undoubtedly something in the music that is very momentous and grand, yet heartfelt and intimate – something very hard to pull off and only made possible by the unashamed ambition on display. There are no bangers or huge hooks here, sure. It’s unapologetically a single piece. But what a piece it is.