Shearwater - Animal Joy
Record Label: Sub Pop
Release Date: February 14, 2012
It happens week after week, year after year. Band releases a few strong efforts, establishing themselves as power players and prompting us to designate any upcoming music from them as worthy of anticipation, only to bestow upon us a disappointing clunker. Maybe it's just me or some product of my unreasonably high expectations, but I've begun to feel like my excitement over an entry on the release calendar is some sort of kiss of death. Thankfully, there are a few bands out there like Shearwater, who despite lineup changes and stylistic shifts, manage to hit the bar every time, if not one-up themselves with each new release.
Although much has been made of Animal Joy as a departure from the band's last few albums, Shearwater once again prove themselves a rock in a sea of inconsistency. Given the band's already impressive discography, it may be a bold statement, but it may very well be their most powerful achievement to date. Certainly, I can't imagine the record leaving fans wishing for anything more.
For one, vocalist and songwriter Jonathan Meiburg, whose dramatic performances have stood front and center on Shearwater's recent releases, is at the peak of his abilities here. It's actually rather awe-inspiring to go back and revisit earlier albums Everybody Makes Mistakes and Winged Life and hear a singer with a rare gift who hadn't quite yet learned to harness its power, and then witness just what a magnificent instrument his voice has become here. While Rook and The Golden Archipelago displayed his ability to shake the walls with force, Animal Joy balances that strength with nuance. The sense of theatricality is not entirely absent, but there's definitely more emphasis on subtlety and understatement that serves these songs well.
As promised, Animal Joy is more directly rock-oriented than Shearwater's more recent albums, but that doesn't hinder their ability to once again produce a startingly beautiful set of songs, with a few surprises along the way as well. "Animal Life" opens the album in a relatively familiar way, exhibiting a number of the band's hallmarks: chamber-folk underpinnings, naturalistic imagery and unsettled (and usually inscrutable) self-reflection. However, "Breaking the Yearlings" quickly confirms all the pre-release talk about a guitar-centric edge to the new songs. Not surprisingly, the real anchor remains Thor Harris's thunderous drumming; without question the mixing is at least partially at work, but the percussion on Shearwater's albums is consistently among the best by an indie rock band not named The National, and Animal Joy is no different.
The record's astonishing eclecticism is readily evident in the one-two punch of "Insolence" and "Immaculate" at the album's center. For all the comparisons to Talk Talk that Shearwater have received in the past, the similarities, to my ears anyway, always began and ended with the range and tone of Meiburg's vocals, which are clearly reminiscent of Mark Hollis. "Insolence" seems like an attempt to finally make good on those references, clearly taking cues from Spirit of Eden's unique guitar tones and striking use of silence almost as an instrument in itself. It's followed immediately by "Immaculate", the most uptempo and hook-driven song of Shearwater's career. If this isn't enough proof that Shearwater are on top of their creative game, check out their adept handling of the gently swaying grooves of "Open Your Houses" and "Believing Makes It Easy" to put any questions to rest.
Though Animal Joy is incredibly effective as an album, context isn't really necessary to appreciate any of its many bright moments. Because each individual song (with perhaps the exception of the no-less-awesome "Insolence") sounds like a potential single in its own right, the record seems capable of drawing new fans into the Shearwater fold while being satisfying to long-time followers-- or at least those who can overlook the slightly less histrionic, slightly more organic approach. It would be a shame not to. Animal Joy represents a remarkable band in their prime of their career and is a stunning success on every level.