“We fully believed we were about to create a literature that was as complex and sophisticated as what we call literature, but it was all of a sudden in music in particular. Everybody looked into the abyss and most people chickened out saying, ‘do we really want William Faulkner?’” –David Thomas
“Pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.” –Evelyn Waugh
“Called out from the mouth of a billion/ Cast away like dogs from the shelter/ A shepherd towing armor plates/ That once collected radiance/ And searching at the light’s perimeter/ The half-remembered wild interior/ Of an animal life.” –Jonathan Meiburg, “Animal Life”
In a lot of ways, Animal Joy is the album I’d always wanted Shearwater to make. I got acquainted with the band with the release of 2007’s Rook and immediately became a member of the band’s relatively small, geeky, but wildly devoted following. Dropping the needle on “On the Death of the Waters” still brings back fond memories of my first listen, when I was overjoyed to discover a rock band that carried the dynamic heft of Mahler, that spoke in cryptic, arcane, but always beautiful language. Much is made of the trio of albums preceding Animal Joy, and I’ll go ahead and say it, they stick out to me as one of the more ambitious musical statements of the aughts.
But, go figure, writing concept albums about colonialism, environmental collapse, and the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests is a surefire way to limit your audience, which is why descriptions of Animal Joy always seem to employ words like “stripped-down” and “raw;” it’s seen as a populist concession or as a sign that the hazy line between Jonathan Meiburg’s academic (he’s done work as an ornithologist and ethnographer) and musical lives is retrenching (the sly dog also fancies himself a commentator, but only just before releasing a new album). People didn’t want what they were selling, so they switched labels (Matador to Sub Pop), producers (John Congleton to Danny Reisch), and put out an album with normal song structures, faster tempos, and fewer marimbas.
I don’t buy it. “Animal Life” begins with Meiburg’s signature operatic tenor, singing something about childhood and the “murmurs in the dark confessional” of a mysterious presence tempting him from domestic comfort toward a sort of naturalistic wildness. A pair of gritty guitar lines wind underneath the second verse, and you realize the hype about Shearwater’s major stylistic shift is largely a matter of instrumentation. Their harmonies are similar, but on earlier albums, they might have used, well, something other than guitars. Thor Harris takes a similar approach to the drumming, sticking mostly to the kit but nevertheless keeping things interesting, especially on the rhythm-driven tracks “Run the Banner Down” and “Dread Sovereign.” Beyond the instrumentation itself, there just isn’t as much silence in Animal Joy as on previous albums, so there aren’t the same thrilling dynamic contrasts.
And the lithe, unadorned Shearwater on display during most of Animal Joy veers into conventionality during the back half. “Immaculate” is a fairly straightforward pop-punk number; “Run the Banner Down” is basically the same song as The Golden Archipelago’s “Landscape At Speed;” and “Star of the Age” is a disappointing album closer, especially from the band that brought us “Hail, Mary” and “Uniforms.”
Animal Joy marks a new direction, sure, but the best tracks play to the band’s strengths. Album highlight “You as You Were” employs the rhythmic piano motors that the band has used often in the past and captures the same epic feel of “Castaways,” the single from Golden Archipelago. Rather like Camus’ moment of realizing the absurd, Meiburg sings about escape from “a job that’s hard on the cast of your little lie.” Following David Thomas’ historiography, if punk is to rock music what Protestantism is to Christianity, Meiburg has always stuck out to me as a leading figure in the counter-reformation. Although it lacks the conceptual cohesion and embroidered orchestration of their last three albums and has a few weak tracks, Animal Joy adds sentiment to intellect, an undefined rebellion to Shearwater’s heady songwriting and thereby challenges that duality. To use an avian metaphor I hope the band would appreciate, they’ve gone from a stately onagadori to a fighting bantam.