The possibility exists that you have never really dug into Shearwater, the perpetually under-the-radar Austin-based princes of chamber pop, at any point over the past decade. Perhaps you have, but if that’s the case chances are you know what’s coming. If you haven’t, however, now is as fitting a time as ever for your formal introduction.
Shearwater’s eighth album, Animal Joy, is an emotional powerhouse of lush orchestration and adventurous indie pop. You should know up front the latter half of this characterization is fairly uncommon terrain for the band. On Animal Joy, Shearwater deliver exemplary playing marked by their personal brand of elegant mettle, sharp production and Jonathan Meiburg’s urbane lyricism and vocals that recurrently leap between divine croon and skillfully restrained near-prog howls.
If you are a Shearwater novice, you should realize the band created a magnificent trilogy of albums (Palo Santo, Rook, The Golden Archipelago) between 2006 and 2010 that cemented them as indie rock critics’ darlings. The band masterfully climbed their way to the throne of a very select niche: rapturous, experimental chamber rock with prog-rock outbreaks. If any superb album of that triumvirate has yet to fall into your lap, you may find yourself seeking out all of them soon after falling for Animal Joy.
This is as timely a moment as ever to get acquainted with Shearwater. Much of the band’s output on the trilogy and their earliest albums are essential for the diehard Shearwater fan, but a firm knowledge of that catalog is not necessarily required reading for full enjoyment of Animal Joy, the band’s thesis in honoring its sound and origins while taking a stab at tuning uninitiated ears and further scribbling Shearwater in the stones of indie rock eminence. “Animal Life” opens the album, and its first notes distinctly call to mind the opening notes of The National’s “Fake Empire” from their 2007 masterpiece (and my #1 album of 2007) Boxer. Shearwater take a stand on “Animal Life” with guitars, driving rhythm, piano and Meiburg’s stadium-ready vocals. From the outset, they make their case for indie glory pointedly clear. Nothing in Shearwater’s catalog is like “Breaking the Yearlings,” a decidedly heavy song with Meiburg’s vocals that bounce between a more restrained Gary Lightbody and an elegant Maynard James Keenan. After several listens to the album, that comparison for Meiburg seems fitting throughout most of the Animal Joy: Meiburg’s voice, just as Shearwater as a whole, comes across as a more imaginative, restrained and less saccharine Snow Patrol bred with a confident indie-chamber-pop version of Tool’s most accessible inclinations (primarily thanks to Thor Harris’ intrepid drumming – enter “Pushing the River” into evidence.) There’s no denying the peculiarity of that assessment, especially when you take into account Shearwater’s frequent Nick Drake tendencies that comprised much of the band’s earliest work – a comparison that pops up again on Animal Joy in “Run the Banner Down,” but those are the sounds coloring the songs of Animal Joy. As are the superb song construction, evocative writing and infectious orchestration of fellow indie darlings-turned-kings-and-queens Arcade Fire.
Maybe pondering the trajectory of Arcade Fire is the most fitting way to understand Animal Joy with respect to Shearwater’s past catalog. There were critics and hardcore AF fans after Funeral who said Win Butler and co. would never create a work so stirring and brilliant as their debut. Neon Bible soon followed. Their fan base amplified; half proclaimed it their masterpiece, and the other half stood firm saying nothing could trump Funeral. The Suburbs came next, AF’s fan base blew up exponentially, they took home multiple Grammys (including Album of the Year) and much of their audience took to belittling Arcade Fire’s newbie fans while insisting nothing could ever touch Funeral. In Shearwater’s case, any album of the trilogy could be Funeral, and Animal Joy – should it get the attention it deserves is- their The Suburbs. Don’t think that comparison is fitting? Listen to the album’s two standout songs that sound unlike anything in Shearwater’s previous output: “You As You Were” and “Immaculate.” Both are stellar, unabashedly infectious rock and roll songs. Neither sounds like anything on the trilogy, and they have the chugging energy, passion and balls-out grandiosity present in Arcade Fire’s best work.
In short, Shearwater want you to hear Animal Joy. They want you to know this is their album for them and you. Give them your ears.
Shearwater are currently on an extensive North American tour opening for St. Vincent. They will play Sasquatch on Memorial Day before embarking on a European trek during several weeks in June and July.
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