Originally a side project led by Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff,both founder members of the critically acclaimed Okkervil River,Shearwater share their parent act’s gift for writing sensitive,literate yet epic songs that are simultaneously tuneful and rich inmusical textures.
The two main protagonists went their separate ways in 2009, withMeiburg retaining leadership of Shearwater, but despite this severanceof ties, interestingly both bands seem to be travelling in similardirections. Last year’s I Am Very Far saw Okkervil opting for a moremuscular, direct style than ever before; likewise, Animal Joy signalsa change in dynamic for Shearwater following the hushed, dreamyatmospherics of 2010’s The Golden Archipelago.
Like the long-winged seabird that inspired his band’s name,Shearwater front man Jonathan Meiburg’s voice soars impressively aboveits surroundings. A powerful yet velvety and versatile tenor satsomewhere between Jeff Buckley and Antony Hegarty, it hasbeen the dominant instrument in the Austin, Texas trio’s seven albumsto date, but on Animal Joy other elements of the band’s sound arepushed more to the fore – not always successfully.
In particular, Thor Harris’s monumental drumming is integral toShearwater’s approach here like never before. At times, such as onthe urgent, driving Pushing The River, Harris’s frenetic tub thumpingpropels the song impressively, and some muffled tom-tom provides aneffective counterpoint to the shimmering harp of Running The BannerDown. Elsewhere though, the often cacophonous percussion is allowed todistract too much from the band’s more delicate charms. The industrialbeats and stark, staccato guitar riffs of Breaking The Yearlingssuffocate the song trying to break through underneath, while closingtrack Star Of The Ages is forced and overwrought.
Shearwater are at their best when at their most restrained, or whentheir songs are allowed to build slowly, giving the differentcomplementary parts space to breathe. Perhaps the best example ofthis on their latest record is the opening Animal Life. Beginningwith just a simple, chiming guitar melody and Meiburg’s emotionallycharged falsetto, it gradually introduces drums, piano and swathes ofreverb as it gathers momentum towards a stirring conclusion. On othertracks, such as Open The Houses and Believing Makes It Easy, theyeffectively summon up the loose limbed ambience of Spirit OfEden-period Talk Talk.
Meiburg has always been a thoughtful, idiosyncratic lyricist andAnimal Joy sees him at his most personal and introspective. Open TheHouses begins with the evocative couplet “I was still life/I waspinned inside of a photograph” as he reflects on the realisation thattime is moving on without him, and on You as You Were he compares thesensual intimacy of physical contact to “the electric charge of achange in the weather/you were touching my arm, you were holding afeather.” Not quite Byron perhaps, but a cut above the averageover-earnest modern troubadour nevertheless.
Taken as a whole, Animal Joy maintains the quality of Shearwater’searlier outings without quite taking things to the next level they’reeminently capable of achieving. Meiburg’s voice is a thing of rarerange and beauty, but it seems the band have yet to settle on the bestway to maximise its formidable gifts. If they were to cut down thebombast just a little and concentrate on their gentler, subtlerqualities, then a truly great album is definitely within Shearwater’sgrasp.