Have You Heard… Bear in Heaven?

by Gabriel Valdez

In 2010, I bought a copy of Uncut off the shelf of Turn It Up, a music store in Northampton, MA. I bought it for the cover story, this feature about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, often viewed as the seminal album in shaping modern music production.

I was originally drawn to Bush in college for her aesthetic similarities (both musical and otherwise) to my favorite artist, Tori Amos. I would end up reading the article two or three times, focusing on Bush’s collaborations with Peter Gabriel and her dealings with her record label, EMI.

That copy of Uncut came with a sampling album. It was called Western Skies, and featured up-and-coming bands from the alt-country movement. Here’s the track list.

I wasn’t expecting much from it. Most notably, it featured a song from Okkervil River’s collaboration with Roky Erickson. Little did I know at the time that it would mark the conclusion of those few years when Okkervil River was, to me, the best band going.

It also featured Joanna Newsom’s “In California,” a little bit of perfection I was already well practiced at championing to every friend who would listen.

The rest of the mix was unremarkable, except for a gem called “Deafening Love” by Bear in Heaven. “Deafening Love.” It was unstructured, moody, intense. It drove forward relentlessly at such a slow, deliberate pace. It felt like the music I might feel – not hear, but feel – at some underground ceremony calling forth a great Cthulhian monstrosity. It felt a little bit like going crazy. I loved it:

“Bear in Heaven,” I thought to myself. “I better pay attention to that sh*t.” The rest of their music often shared a similar intensity, but never quite found that insane groove of “Deafening Love.”

And then 2012 happened. It was a good year for Bears. Grizzly Bear released the fantastic album Shields. My Chicago Bears even went 10-6 with a record-setting defense (ownership, upset at drifting away from our traditional mediocrity, promptly fired the coach). And Bear in Heaven released the last thing anyone ever expected from their loosely structured, psychedelic, Cthulhian-inducing, alt-country band: a tight, poppy, modern 80s masterpiece.

I Love You, It’s Cool the album title goes. You can clearly hear the musicality of The Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen, but there’s something more there. Listen carefully enough, and you’ll start to notice a pathos behind the songs’ charms. Moments are captured with both a disarming magic and an emotional burden. This is Tears for Fears territory right here:

“Timing is a blurry word
Never ever understood
We could fret until the end
Or fluoresce in trouble’s hand.”

What few critics gave much notice to I Love You, It’s Cool listened to the sound and dismissed the album as wonderfully pleasant, but full of empty charm. They were wrong.

I Love You, It’s Cool the album title goes. On this album, sometimes that’s a reassurance. Sometimes it’s an assertion. Sometimes it’s a threat. Sometimes it’s spoken in desperation, hoping someone out there echoes it back.

In “Noon Moon,” of which there isn’t a good copy to be found (each of Bear in Heaven’s albums is freely available on Spotify, but they’re not popular enough to be found in full elsewhere), vocalist Jon Philpot sings:

“The hushed street is booming louder than my heartbeat
The sunrise reverberates, I will never sleep
The calm water should inspire my weary eyes
But this boy is running wild in overdrive.
Roll around, hair in a fit, rattle on thoughtful mind
Cruel world, can’t change a thing, crying at the television.”

You ask, “Who’s making good 80s music today?” My eyes light up. My heart leaps a little in my chest. Why? I get the chance to tell you about Bear in Heaven.

Since I can’t share “Noon Moon” here, enjoy their excellent commentary on narcissism “The Reflection in You.”

(Bear in Heaven does have a 2014 album, Time Is Over One Day Old, but like everything else they’ve done, it’s completely different from their other work: still synth-heavy, but focused on relaxed 70s folk and psychedelia.)

Have You Heard… is a stream of song and band recommendations, many of which may be new to you. It’s also the kind of analysis that’s missing in a music industry obsessed with image and celebrity instead of the music itself.

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