You Belong There is Daniel Rossen’s first ever full-length solo album. But, as the saying goes, it’s taken him a lifetime to get here. For some 20 years, Rossen has been a member of Grizzly Bear, the orchestral Brooklyn troupe who smartened up the city after The Strokes’ rock’n’roll reign, pioneering a wave of literate, sonically sumptuous indie rock in their wake. Grizzly Bear released five studio albums, won acclaim from the likes of Radiohead – Johnny Greenwood declared them his favourite band – and spawned a side-project of sorts in the shape of Department Of Eagles, which Rossen actually formed while studying linguistics and psychology at New York University around the turn of the millennium.
Grizzly Bear’s intrinsic grasp of a certain strain of melodic rock classicism – that of Van Dyke Parks, Paul McCartney and Randy Newman – set them up for longevity. But there were also signs of creative tension, in particular between the band’s nominal leader Ed Droste – who began Grizzly Bear as a solo project in the early 2000s – and Rossen, who joined in 2005 and became the group’s second principal songwriter. By the recording of 2017’s Painted Ruins, the group had scattered across the US. And in 2020, it was revealed that Droste had left the band to become a therapist, a faintly Spinal Tap event that appears to have prompted a lengthy hiatus, if not a permanent split.
Rossen is not new to this solo thing. Indeed, he’s been emerging as a solo songwriter for some time. Around the release of 2012’s EP Silent Hour/Golden Mile, his first music under his own name, he spoke of songwriting as an increasingly solitary and hermetic pursuit. “A lot of this music comes from exiling myself, in a strange way,” he told one interviewer. First, he moved out to rural upstate New York; and then out to the hills of Santa Fe, where the languid, ruminative acoustic guitar music of You Belong There gradually came into being.
You can feel a sense of long gestation throughout You Belong There. It definitely hails from the same universe as Grizzly Bear, sharing that band’s meticulous orchestrated style, its dazed and dreamy sense of drift. And of course, there’s no mistaking Rossen’s voice – a light and airy thing perfectly suited to harmony singing that, just like Brian Wilson, hides a whisper of unease within its breezy currents. But there’s a sense of spaciousness here that you seldom hear in Grizzly Bear, as if these songs are playing out beneath a wide-open sky. “Forsaken land/You kept me when I couldn’t face the world”, sings Rossen on the opening “It’s A Passage”, a gorgeous reverie of acoustic guitar plucks and strums that twists and turns like a mountain trail.
These years in the wilderness have given Rossen time to skill up. Born into an arts family, he trained in upright bass as a kid, toyed with the idea of becoming a jazz musician. He picks it up again here, along with cello and a selection of woodwind instruments that he taught himself to play himself (the only key instrument he doesn’t play are the drums, ably handled throughout the record by his Grizzly Bear compadre Chris Bear). If there’s any residual amateurishness here, it’s easily superseded by the focus that comes from Rossen operating as the sole creative force. Take “Shadow In The Frame”, a mellifluous passage through scurrying guitar, woodwind serenades and shimmering strings that sees each element rise to the fore then recede into the busy background. It’s in Rossen’s nature to make these songs slide down easily, but take a magnifying glass to it and it pops with complexity; dense like a Radiohead song, plotted with all manner of left turns.
The songs of You Belong There inhabit wild and empty spaces, but there is little sense of loneliness or desolation; on the contrary, they seem to draw some form of comfort or wisdom from this state of solitude. “Chased out to a stolen range/The red plains beyond the fence/They’re dead calm but there’s solace here/It’s a choice to live that way”, he sings on “Celia”, a lush chamber folk that moves at the pace of clouds carried along on a light breeze. “Unpeopled Space” strikes a similar tone, its plucked mariachi guitar intro seeming to draw something from the New Mexico soil. The lyric seems to address the simple doing that comes with building a new life from the foundations up – “Our work for work’s sake/We’re useless in our way/Clear the brush and push the paint”, he sings. The song ends on a note of Zen-like acceptance: “Nothing’s lost when there’s nothing there/Whatever was and whatever will”. It’s about not over-thinking, just existing, and how that, in its own way,
can be healing.
Speaking to Uncut, Rossen talks of not being a confessional songwriter. This is an odd thing to say, perhaps, given this record’s personal themes and depth of feeling. But he is not the sort of songwriter to splurge his emotions across the page, and everything performed here shows a refined hand. There is fairly traditional singer-songwriter fare here, typified by “Keeper And Kin” and “The Last One”. But this is interspersed with more unusual moments. The remarkable “Tangle” sees Rossen’s multi-tracked vocal cast high above rippling modern classical piano, flurries of percussion and jumpy upright bass. Elsewhere, a handful of guests are brought onboard to supply subtle colour. Jeremy Barnes of A Hawk And A Hacksaw adds a ringing drone to “I’ll Wait For Your Visit” using a santoor, an Indian hammered dulcimer. And the title track gets a lift thanks to lilting, Hawaiian-tinged electric guitar courtesy of Deerhoof’s John Dieterich.
The closing track here, “Repeat The Pattern”, is perhaps the most lyrically straightforward on the record and also puts everything that came before it in a sort of relief. It seems to speak directly to Rossen’s days in the wilderness of upstate New York – a period of hermetic isolation that, he explains, he’s since mythologised in his head. The bulk of the song is dispensed in two verses that feel spry and melodic, popping with bright cello and woodwind. But just when you think the record is complete, in swoops a coda that concludes both song and album on a haunting note. “Conjured life/I’ve arrived/If only I could keep you/But it wasn’t real”, he sings. It’s like a glimpse of paradise that leaves you dazed and questioning: was it all just a mirage?
You Belong There is an album rich in moments of beauty and wisdom, even as it confesses that there are no easy answers. Grizzly Bear’s early records impressed through their callow inventiveness – young prodigies making big, assured music that felt beyond their years. But here Rossen pulls off a different trick. It’s a ‘becoming’ record for a man entering middle age, one that seeks moments of calm in deep contemplation and an appreciation of the simple rhythms of life. And if that sense of unease hasn’t completely departed, well, it shows you can paint something beautiful when you work with the right mix of light and shade.