Shearwater’s last three albums, 2006’s Palo Santo, 2008’s Rook and 2010’s The Golden Archipelago formed something of a trilogy for the band, a rather loose collection of songs with similar themes and sonic qualities. The whole thing came together last January when in a one-time performance in Austin, TX, the band played all 3 records back-to-back-to-back in a show they dubbed The Island Arc. The consensus in the band was The Island Arc was set to close that chapter of the band in preparation for their next step, which would be a bit different from the spacious and grandiose beauty of those three records. Besides, for all the orchestral swells and beauty that was The Golden Archipelago, it had reached a point of pretension that further enforced the idea that Shearwater was this niche band with a carved out, pre-built fan base. The quality was high, but not so many people allowed themselves to get into it. Moving beyond The Island Arc also brought more changes with it, including a switch of labels from Matador to Sub Pop, and producers from John Congleton to Phil Ek. This bold new adventure Shearwater has undertaken finally arrives in the form of their new album Animal Joy. For those turned off by the band’s expansive arrangements and complicated melodies in recent years, here’s a much simpler and more direct record that should give you a reason to take another look at Shearwater.
The cover art for Animal Joy tells you a lot about what to expect on the record itself. Two furry, clawed animal feet photographed in close-up, looking like they could tear just about anything apart, including a human being. It’s very primal in nature, and the music is too, like an attack straight at your jugular. That’s not to call it harsh or necessarily fierce, but for a band whose last 3 efforts have been largely gorgeous flights of fancy, the plain and direct way these songs are presented feels just a little bit alien. “Animal Life” quivers just a little in its finger-picked beginning, fragile but sparse beauty that it is, before Jonathan Meiburg gets his gusto up and tears into a dynamic and vital chorus. It makes for one of the poppiest songs in the band’s catalogue to date, and the ease at which it goes down is more comforting than you might think. The voracity at which single “Breaking the Yearlings” races along is equally thrilling, in part thanks to an overdubbed double percussion attack and some seriously deep guitar work. There is nothing delicate or even beautiful about it, even though the badass exterior it puts up projects a different sort of loveliness. The piano and drums chug of “You As You Were” brings a very Springsteen-esque quality to the track, which is tempered only by some plinking xylophone work and Meiburg’s commanding vocals as he chants, “I am leaving the life” as if he’s breaking free from an oppressed state. In fact much of the record’s themes are about the yearning to escape social conventions and embracing our own natural instincts.
Undoubtedly some will be left wishing for the more lush and gorgeous version of Shearwater from their last few albums, and the somewhat good news is that Animal Joy doesn’t leave those people completely out in the cold. The 6.5 minute “Insolence” does a fair and rather lovely job of bringing the first half of the record to a close in an epic ballad style that holds an air of familiarity to it. Following those moments of classic Shearwater comfort comes “Immaculate”, which roars to life at the pace of a cheetah and doesn’t slow down for even a second of its 2.5 minute duration. It is the most unique moment on the entire album, less because of originality’s sake and more because it is so unlike any of the other songs on the record. Yet after that point the album’s final few songs turn out rather bland and forgettable. “Open Your Houses (Basilisk)” tenderly jaunts along with such an instrumental similarity to Spoon that you half expect Britt Daniel to make a guest vocal appearance. The tenderness of “Run the Banner Down” and “Believing Makes It Easy” are very nice on the surface, but are ultimately very listless and whitewashed, almost as a means to an end. Speaking of the end, “Star of the Age” has plenty going for it instrumentally and vocally, but once again feels like another hat Shearwater is trying on to see if it fits. This particular piece of headwear feels as if it’s been worn a thousand times before by different people, none of whom have the same unique qualities Meiburg & Co. have going for them. Only the intensity and vibrance of “Pushing the River” brings some serious gravitas to the back half of the album, and it’s just a shame there aren’t more tracks like it to lend some additional support.
Shearwater is the sort of band that should know better by now. They’ve been in existence for over a decade, even if the first half of that was spent as Meiburg’s side project to Okkervil River. They’re right to want to change course and try something new, but it’s important to carefully think through a move like that before attempting it. Animal Joy has plenty of positives going for it, particularly in its very direct and pop-strewn first half, but eventually it loses sight of such fresh-faced charm and becomes a set of copies that it feels like we’ve heard before from different bands. Clearly their next evolutionary step is still under development. Call it a transitional record if you like, but by no means is this something to ignore. There’s moments that will suck you in and leave you breathless, while for others having the band show a little teeth and claws is a form of wish fulfillment. Meiburg’s vocals are as powerful as they’ve ever been, and drummer Thor Harris is allowed to shine like never before. If Animal Joy is treated by the band as a learning experience with the best moments used as a template for the future, things will undoubtedly remain bright for Shearwater in the future.
Shearwater – Breaking the Yearlings
Shearwater – You As You Were