Arty, atmospheric and sometimes ambiguously bleak, Shearwater has, over the past decade, not built up a reputation so much as a brand. Their albums are typically characterized by Jonathan Meiburg’s dramatic vocal delivery, a quiet intensity that evokes the likes of Talk Talk and John Cale, and a fascination with birds that has led their artwork and subject matter to be permeated by winged creatures. And every so often, those slow, haunting tunes give way to a gloriously loud and explosive rock song, such as “Seventy-Four Seventy-Five” or “Century Eyes.” Those have always been the exception to the rule, but it seems that Meiburg & Co. have thrown caution to the wind with new album and first for Sub Pop, Animal Joy, a collection of guitar-based indie rockers the release of which was preceded by the statement, “No strings or glockenspiels were touched during the making of this album.”
Should this warning give any fans pause, let me assure you, Shearwater hasn’t in any way, shape or form abandoned the aesthetic they’ve spent so many years honing and perfecting. And while Animal Joy doesn’t contain any strings or glockenspiels, it does, in fact, feature piano, celesta, saxophone, harp and clarinet. It’s an identifiably Shearwater album that only Meiburg, Kimberly Burke and Thor Harris could pull off, just a little more muscular, and a bit more stripped down. It’s the band’s most explicitly rock-heavy album, and yet, no amount of distortion could wipe out their bombastic melancholy.
The album starts off much the same way that predecessor The Golden Archipelago did, with some gentle guitar plucks gradually ushering in the introduction of percussion and, ultimately, a fully fleshed-out chorus. But first track “Animal Life” is instantly more buoyant and upbeat than anything from the band’s past couple albums, intricate and layered, but with an emphasis on hooks, and an energy that, if handled properly, may or may not lead to dancing. It’s a glorious sound, even downright catchy, but there’s a funny thing about “Animal Life” – as bright and shining a pop song as it is, it still reveals itself slowly and subtly, careful not to reveal too much at once.
Nuance tends to go by the wayside at various points in the album, every couple of tracks or so the band preferring to just lay down some noisy riffs and heavy rhythms. And, frankly, they prove to be quite good at it. They make a fearsome clatter on “Breaking the Yearlings,” strut with the cooler-than-cold appeal of Spoon on “Dread Sovereign,” and reach for the highest of cathartic heights on “You As You Were,” culminating in a cleansing refrain of “I am leaving the life.” Even better are those moments when the band makes a stronger effort to deliver a sparkling pop tune, which they do wonderfully with the raw and jangly “Immaculate,” or the mesmerizing and atmospheric “Pushing the River.”
When immersed in their abstract art rock world, Shearwater can create something magical in its dark beauty. But, as it turns out, they’re also pretty good at simply getting to the point and making a noisy rock record. Animal Joy is merely Shearwater reduced to their most visceral essence, twice as potent but equally worth savoring.
Stream: Shearwater – “You As You Were”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.