Named after a seabird, releasing an EP calledThe Snow Leopardalongside albums calledRook,Palo Santoand nowAnimal Joy, it’s safe to say Shearwater have always had nature at their core. Lead singer Jonathan Meiburg has long used it in his lyrics to serve as a parallel to his emotions, while Shearwater’s instrumentation, like the weather, is often calm, but poised to turn into a destructive force at any time. And on this, their eighth album, it’s as if all the previous emotion of the reclusive Texan three-piece’s albums has been amassed and then unleashed. This is first noticeable on the mighty and apocalyptic ‘Breaking The Yearlings’, a song which any self-respecting Mayan follower needs on their End Times Playlist 2012. “The river is blocked, the road is hot, the sky is blazing,” Meiburgh blasts, “black smoke on the rise, the weather rolls until it’s on you and suddenly breaks.” It’s rare for a song to sound so much like the atmosphere its lyrics describe.
Brooding and dark, but concise and tightly played, the songs have a more direct urgency than some fans will be used to. There’s brevity too, with a real economical use of melodies and hooks which ensures that, despite the territory, it never becomes a listen you get bogged down in. Instead, space is allowed for a song as spirited as ‘You As You Were’, with its hyperactive xylophone, to burst out, sounding like Sigur Rós on amphetamines. ‘Insolence’, however, is the album’s centrepiece, a gothic ballad that, by its climax, has all dials turned to ‘epic’ as Meiburg, in a juxtaposition of introversion and extroversion, cries “all your life inside a chrysalis writhing?.. One more time, it’s real.” Then, as the album changes gear again, ‘Immaculate’ injects a satisfying shot of breezy punk-rock into the rural-prog palate that’s gone before, proving that Meiburg doesn’t spend all of his time pouring over wildlife annuals. Or, at least, that while he does, he’s listening to Spoon records.
Meiburg has a vocal technique that is very much a ‘technique’. It’s developed over the years and is now a curious mix of falsetto and bravado, heavy with thought and conviction throughout. Coupled with the feisty but restrained instrumentation, the album maintains a dramatic sense of wilderness that is hard to ignore. A certain Hail To The Thief-era Radiohead aggression creeps into their songwriting at points too, and ‘Pushing The River’ is a case in point. Had there been a little more dynamism of sound on Animal Joy, it would be tempting to hypothesise that, should Thom Yorke have come to embrace ornithology rather than technology with Radiohead in recent years, the Oxford band’s latest album may not have sounded too dissimilar to these eleven songs.