Austin based, genre-fusing indie outfit Shearwater has again produced one of the finest albums of the year, or the past few for that matter. Claiming that Shearwater is inaccessible (as some might) is a difficult assertion to defend. Albeit unusual, lead singer Jonathan Meiburg’s voice is, technically speaking, considerably more attuned than most across indie music. The band performs consistently enthralling, rhythmic, and instrumentally compelling albums released on some of the largest indie labels in the country. Is it possible their focus on obscure wildlife and the throes of the natural wild fall too far from the standard indie fare of unrequited love, loss, and bemoaning the plight of growing up middle class to interest purveyors of indie rock? Maybe they just need more tattoos. Whatever the reason for Shearwater’s difficulty in breaking into the upper echelon of American indie bands in terms of popularity, it does not suffice.
With Animal Joy, Shearwater further evidences themselves as one of the most talented, distinctive bands in America, producing some of the most masterfully achieved albums released today. Animal Joy does register as Shearwater’s most rock oriented record to date, as if extending a hand in the direction of the ever-reluctant listening public. They play the part of the dedicated lover, taking the hand of their confused partner, “We want to make this work. We’re sorry you don’t understand our genius.” Those feeling total shock at this mild transformation, will do well to recall “Century Eyes” from Rook or “White Waves” as far back as Palo Santo. Shearwater has always rocked now and again, as anyone who has seen them live can attest.
Opener “Animal Life” immediately impresses with the space that a few guitar strings and Meiburg’s voice can fill. Each line is its own hook with flowing lyrics that roll liltingly in tight succession. At the end of this introduction of sorts, we are given a few notes of harpsichord dissonance, proving that Shearwater is still Shearwater. The band possesses the ability to build a song magnificently, and they do so here, introducing a booming drum at a minute and a half before beautiful harpsichord, full drums, and an electric guitar drop in powerfully and Meiburg begins to belt out lyrics. Fitting epic into three and a half minutes is a near impossible task, but one that Shearwater often achieves, as they do here.
What follows is a collection of songs, each unique and worthy of noting. To do each song justice would take a novella. Words just can’t encapsulate the intricacies of such an accomplished and elaborate album. The rhythmic, rocking “Breaking the Yearlings” stands out amongst the other tracks with its raw energy, which may be the reason for Sheawater making the songs available for download early on. However, the record is full of other examples of excellence, like the slow, grooving power of “Dread Sovereign,” the airy falsetto of Meiburg’s voice on “Believing Makes it Easy,” or the quiet, persistent, dark beauty of “Run the Banner Down.” The upbeat galloping percussion and steady keys of “You As You Were” are perfect as Meiburg weaves together captivating lyrics that build to a crescendo of him shouting, “I am leaving the life,” in repetition. The song was sensibly used for the first video from the album.
If forced to make a complaint: the later tracks stretch perhaps just half a minute too long, and the churning repetition of “Open Your Houses (Basilisk)” creates a slight lull in the album’s flow. However, these are minor concerns regarding songs that remain sonically interesting.
Despite more of the songs on Animal Joy being rock leaning than in past releases, Shearwater maintains the facets of their music that defines them – they are still at times challenging, quiet, stark, acoustically experimental, and beautiful. Meiburg remains faithful to his animalistic imagery, all the way down to the liner notes, which include impressive drawings of various fauna. Shearwater clearly dedicates themselves to a sound, an aesthetic, and a vision. We can only hold out hope that those in the dark will discover one of the best bands in American indie music with this record aimed at a wider audience.