In ten years, if someone asks me whether or not Shearwater had ever released a bad record, I can’t imagine a scenario in which the answer would be yes. Shearwater seems to exist as a member of an elite class that doesn’t seem quite capable of producing anything pedestrian. Unfortunately, this is a sort of purgatory in which reliability comes at the expense of risk, a fact that was first truly evident on their last album The Golden Archipelago, but continues throughout most of Animal Joy and therefore limits its potential rewards. While there are plenty of fantastic moments to be found and the album is certainly recommendable, its sluggishly repetitive second half reminds the listener too often of exactly what the strengths and weaknesses of this band are.
After releasing 2010’s relatively minor The Golden Archipelago, lead singer-songwriter Jonathan Meiburg suggested that he had completed a trilogy. The best of these releases, 2008’s Rook, featured an intensity that had emerged from the muted tones and obscurity of 2006’s Palo Santo. Archipelago was similarly cautious. As the clear standout, Rook seemed to feature Shearwater at the height of their powers, but the thread that ran through all three albums was clear enough. Though Meiburg’s voice is a dominant and powerful presence, his lyrics always showcased a sense of detachment, as if he was unwilling or unable to connect personally to the songs that he was writing. This and many other aspects of the band were supposed to change with the completion of the trilogy and Animal Joy was described as a major departure. I can say with a cocktail of moderate enthusiasm and exceptional complacency that this is not the case. As a fan of a band who put out three albums whose qualities range from good to great, why would one desire a shift of radical proportions? It is rare that such a move pays off and I’m not convinced that Shearwater will be pulling a Radiohead any time soon. It therefore follows that another album which adheres to the same successful formula should not be received as a disappointment (even if it might feel like one), so much as it should be viewed as a testament to the ambivalence that can ultimately be bred from consistency and constantly measured expectations.
Under these finite circumstances, what does separate Animal Joy from his first three records under the Shearwater moniker is Meiburg’s greater personal focus. Whereas songs like “The Snow Leopard” often felt more inspired by poetry than experience, many of the songs on Animal Joy manage to switch this focus and they do so effectively. Instead of reflecting generally on aspects of nature, Meiburg asks questions directly, not merely esoterically. When he growls, “Where were you all your life?” on “Insolence,” it feels as if he has a target in mind for the first time. His disappointment and disapproval is a palpable and relatable emotion. Though such moments occur with greater frequency, the lovely but largely incoherent ramblings of the past are still firmly represented on most every track only now, Meiburg has escaped the trappings of focusing on spirituality and the like by directing his imagery towards more physical and tangible objects and scenarios.
Even with this greater personal focus, allowing oneself to pay too much attention to the text of the album would be fruitless were the music not satisfying as well. Though its back half is decidedly murkier, Animal Joy is nonetheless an engaging listen. “Animal Life” will fit neatly next to “On the Death of the Waters” as brilliant Shearwater openers. The tone of the album is established early and established well so that even when there is a dip in quality, the slightly off-kilter rhythms and momentarily surprising melodic shifts of “Animal Joy” persist. The industrial fog which permeates most of the album starts about halfway through the opening track and never really lets go. When the drums finally kick in, it seems as if we are on pace for a more driven and exciting Shearwater album than The Golden Archipelago. First single “Breaking the Yearlings,” does nothing to dispel this pace, but it is hardly a standout. If Shearwater were said to be masters of one trick, it would be crafting a song that broods slowly and delicately with a palpable atmosphere and then bursting it open, often with the aid of a leap in vocal register. These moments are scattered all over the place on Animal Joy, particularly devastating on tracks like “Insolence” and “Run the Banner Down,” with its controlled horn ostinato being a quiet highlight of the album.
If Shearwater’s next album manages to be the departure that Animal Joy was rumored to be, “You As You Were” will be the song that is pointed to as its immediate progenitor. With the rapid loops of an Owen Pallett track, “You As You Were” fires on all cylinders and showcases all of Shearwater’s most powerful attributes whilst simultaneously being one of the only musical moments on Animal Joy that feels foreign. Oddly enough, “You As You Were” follows a similar structure to the already legendary “All My Friends,” by LCD Soundsystem. We start with a repeated note on a piano that becomes the through-line for the entire song. As Meiburg recounts a pivotal and possibly life-changing moment through the lens of a particularly memorable nosebleed (the idea to do so apparently came from Sharon Van Etten), he gains energy with the addition of each instrument. The xylophones in particular lend the track a sprightliness that is absent through the rest of the album. Ingenuity isn’t absent from the rest of the album entirely (see the harp arpeggiation on “Star of the Age”), but it is most notable here. “You As You Are” culminates in the only statement that Meiburg deems worthy of repeating throughout the album, “I am leaving the life.” Whether this song and in particular this lyric forecasts the musical shift necessary to keep Shearwater interesting and relevant is unclear just now, but it at least proves that its existence is a distinct possibility. With Animal Joy, the melodramatic yet undeniable power of Shearwater has remained intact, but it is difficult to imagine that we will still be listening in a few years if they don’t begin to veer slightly from the template that most of this album relies on.