Just over a year ago, on January 15, 2011, Shearwater took to the stage at Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church and performed its “Island Arc” albums—a loose trilogy including Palo Santo (2006), Rook (2008), and The Golden Archipelago (2010)— in their sweeping entirety. When I interviewed Jonathan Meiburg last month, he was still reeling from the experience.
“It felt like a validation of those records,” the singer told me proudly. “But it also felt like we’d reached the end of it. By the time we played the last note of the last time, I thought, ‘OK, from now on, it has to be different from this.’”
It’s not a farewell concert, promised the show’s promotion. “It’s a way for us to look back and to clear the way for what’s next—which we expect will be quite different.” Animal Joy, the band’s first outing since that marathon (and first for Sub Pop), makes good on Meiburg’s promise. Stripping away layers of orchestration and drama, the record exposes a muscular guitar- and drum-based simplicity lurking underneath, to mostly successful, albeit far more understated results.
Rook and Archipelago drew on an impossibly rich tapestry of instrumentation—organ, dulcimer, woodwinds, harp, hammer, and a metal box are just a start. By contrast, Animal Joy feels invigorated by its sparseness. There are guest appearances by members of Wye Oak and Okkervil River (Meiburg left the group in 2008 to focus on Shearwater full-time), but the record draws mostly on a basic lineup of Meiburg, Kim Burke (bass), and Thor Harris (drums). Here, that core is usually enough, reflecting the band’s budding interest in overt rock flourishes.
Lead single “Breaking the Yearlings” boasts the results most bracingly, all booming percussion, swirling organ flourishes, and a guitar riff as gleefully primitive as it is rousing. “I take one breath and spiral down,” Meiburg cries over what may well be the band’s most stirring rock song to date. “I wanted a grittiness and an earthiness to it,” explained the singer of the recording process. It worked, even if his emotive soprano is all that’s really recognizable in the final product.
Only the punkish “Immaculate” emulates the same guitar-driven abandon, with far blander results. At just over two minutes, the track calls to mind “Century Eyes”, but gets mired down in unexciting guitar work and a plodding, simplistic melody that never endows its lyrics with the emotional weight they deserve. Much better are straightforward mid-tempo numbers like “Dread Sovereign” and “Pushing the River”. The former builds from an achingly simple chord pattern into a chorus of layered backing vocals and well-timed power chords; the latter fades out on a stirring drone of feedback wails and propulsive, almost New Wavey drumming.
Animal Joy falters where it mistakes crude simplicity for reinvention (“Immaculate”, “Believing Makes Easy”). It isn’t always the instrumentation that’s so altered—it’s also the song structures, the sturdier track lengths, the muted climaxes. There’s nothing as multilayered or eerie as “Home Life”, nothing as oddly textured as “South Col” or epic as “On the Death of the Waters”. Like “Breaking the Yearlings”, most tracks here follow stubbornly conventional structures and back-to-basics instrumental choices.
Yet some of the finest moments still contain hints of that richness and compositional complexity. “Run the Banner Down” offers a welcome textural respite, layering acoustic plucking and snareless drum patterns beneath one of Meiburg’s most welcoming vocal melodies. “Indolence”, meanwhile, is unquestionably the album’s most haunting piece. Comparisons to Laughing Stock-era Talk Talk abound in Shearwater reviews for good reason. With its distant snare hits, patient build-up, and fierce, electrifying guitar howls, this one feels like a worthy cousin to “After the Flood”. “Joy is real!” Meiburg wails at the song’s climax. “It’s so real.” It’s a thrilling catharsis, masterfully employing the dynamic range much of this album sacrifices. It’s also a telling message: that to move on from its fantastic “Island Arc” trilogy, the band need not move on from its most obvious compositional strengths.