“The shadows / I’m not living there anymore,” sings Jonathan Meiburg on “Pushing the River,” the high point of Shearwater’s new album, “Animal Joy.” This new release makes it clear that Shearwater has stepped out of the shadow of established alt-rockers Okkervil River, of which Meiburg was formerly the keyboardist. Although Shearwater was originally begun as a side project by Meiburg and frontman Will Sheff, it has become a force of its own. “Animal Joy” once again shows Shearwater’s constant musical evolution: the band has arisen from the gloomy murk of 2008’s “Rook” to develop an upbeat and piercing sound that despite its brightness is just as haunting.
It is hard to recognize Shearwater at first listen in the glossy, roaring beast that is “Animal Joy.” It is apparent from the album’s first track, “Animal Life,” that the stifled falsettos, muddy chords, and folk aesthetic of 2006’s “Palo Santo” have taken a backseat to more elaborately produced rock music. “You As You Were,” the fourth track of “Animal Joy,” exemplifies this change. Over a dense backdrop of synth arpeggios, ghostly backup vocals, and pounding piano, Meiburg earnestly belts dramatic lines such as, “The shock of the exit leaves you trembling.” Shearwater may consist of soft-spoken indie musicians, but it can clearly rev up its energy to create ferocious arena rock. Moreover, the album’s densely packed layers make for an audiophile’s paradise; “Animal Joy” is less an album than a unified soundscape. A good set of headphones is needed to fully delve into the depths of tuneful melodies, hammering guitars and piano, and thundering drums.
“Immaculate,” the most danceable track on the album, demonstrates Shearwater’s ability to try on different styles. This riff-filled and up-tempo track is neither characteristic of the soothing vocals and austerity of prior releases nor of the arena-rock atmosphere of the rest of “Animal Joy.” However, its catchy, exciting drive make “Immaculate” a welcome addition to the album. Its abrupt finish—the entire track clocks in at just over two minutes—is all the more refreshing, since the next track brings the album back to more familiar territory: “Open Your Houses (Basilisk)” has soft piano textures and philosophical lyrics like “I was pinned inside of a photograph.” Shearwater may have shown an unprecedented knack for commercial-friendly songs like “Immaculate,” but they still for the most part retain their artistic dignity through off-color notes and lyrical grandeur.
However, it is during the moments that Shearwater forgets to restrain itself that “Animal Joy” borders on the hokey. The album is at times overly exultant, blasting out chords with no dynamic contrast. The more exuberant sections of tracks like “Breaking the Yearlings” can seem a tad too self-righteous. But when they rein in the booms and crashes, the eerie depths of Meiburg’s discordant voice contrast beautifully with the intensity of Shearwater’s new style. That is why tracks like “Insolence” work; Meiburg’s soaring vocals are a light but constant presence beneath the noisy clamor of drums and inflated guitar. Here, Shearwater is artfully able to explode and retreat in turn, letting the vocals subside into instrumental interludes that are beautiful and powerful, just as the band starts to veer towards overkill.
“Pushing the River” exemplifies this tactic of push and pull; the song almost completely fades out before the vocals, guitars, and drums return in a simultaneous burst of excitement. “You were the flashing wings of a swallow / You were the light in a lion’s eye,” sings Meiburg, his dramatic lyrics magnifying the song’s power. The raw force and poignant restraint of “Pushing the River” make it easy to see from whence “Animal Joy” derives its name. Indeed, the band named itself after a unique and long-lived seabird, and after years of muted releases, it is nice to finally see Shearwater turn up the guitars, intensify the arrangements, and take flight.
—Staff writer Sophie E. Heller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.