Shearwater – Animal Joy

Shearwater - Animal Joy

I spent an inordinate amount of my time in 2011 listening to music by – and reviewing records for – artists who found themselves tangled up in the media frenzy of lo-fi and chillwave.  Often a smeary but no less loveable pastiche of indecipherable vocals, willfully retro synthesizers, and staggering reverb, artists like Neon Indian and Washed Out seemed to represent an enigmatic sort of sea change, as if a return to the pop culture of the Reagan years was not only imminent but also plausible.  It was really beginning to feel like Steinberger bass guitars and posthumous John Hughes flicks weren’t far off.  And don’t even get me started on M83.

Thanks God that Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg chose this particular moment to release his band’s eighth album, Animal Joy.  Always one for hyper-literate prose, meticulous production, and ambitious concepts, Meiburg’s songwriting is in many ways the antidote to America’s current obsession with bedroom recording projects; the questions posed by Shearwater are weighty ones, and often the answers lie in places well beyond the solitary confines of a studio apartment.  Indeed, you’re unlikely to find another band in 2012 that can navigate between volatile theatrics and startling intimacy with such deftness.  Dude can conjure dreamy ambience as well as anyone, but the real joy of a Shearwater record is how even the most ethereal atmospheres retain an air of effervescence and immediacy.

Purportedly a step removed from the richly decorated prog-rock leanings of the band’s “Island Arc” trilogy (2006’s Palo Santo, 2008’s Rook, and 2010’s The Golden Archipelago), Shearwater’s Animal Joy exhibits a welcomed touch of minimalism while still concerning itself with many of Meiburg’s existential burdens.  Bound together thematically by metaphors and symbolism concerning the ephemeral nature of the world’s fauna, the record finds Meiburg veering between enervated lamentations and paeans to doggedness as a Spoon-like prudence surfaces in the instrumental arrangements.

True to Shearwater’s history, Animal Joy plays like an album built with the LP format in mind; the first half is a dazzling sequence of surging pop/rock (“Animal Life”), doom-laden bombast (“Breaking the Yearlings”), and Reich-ian classicism (“You as You Were”).  Side A winds down with “Insolence,” a sublime six-minute epic of fluttering percussions timbres, barbed guitar chords, and soaring vocal melodies that finds Meiburg pointedly exclaiming, “Where were you / all your life / inside a chrysalis, writing!”

The topic of mortality appears throughout Animal Joy, especially on the album’s latter half where the presence of drummer Thor Harris is aggrandized by dialed down arrangements.  “Immaculate” manifests itself as an uncharacteristic burst of punk-indebted spunkiness, over which Meiburg hollers, “Johnny, get a hold of your life…follow the loneliest road / and run in the dark.”  “Open Your Houses” pairs a scant drumbeat with tremolo-affected guitars, hypnotic piano chords, and lyrical allegory (“I was still life…the pulse of an irregular life”).  “Pushing the River” is another showcase for both Harris and Meiburg, who dole out seismic rhythms and allegorical imagery (“You were the flashing wings of a swallow / and you were the light in a lion’s eye”), respectively over droning guitars and melodic bass lines.

Those who first discovered Shearwater in the midst of their mid-aughts Matador ascendancy will be quick to pass judgment on the band’s Sub Pop debut as nothing more than a minor triumph when compared with the dramatic splendor of Palo Santo or Rook, but in truth, this record is as fine a statement as anything Meiburg’s released.  While it may lack the dense orchestrations and insular connotations of previous efforts, Animal Joy packs a powerful punch all of its own, typified by an artfully sequenced set of songs that capture the human condition with panache.

Some might argue that nostalgic lo-fi pop can reach similarly affecting levels, but they still pale in comparison to the can-do spirit of Animal Joy’s closing track “Star of the Age,” in which Meiburg aptly sums up the fleeting nature of our existence: “And in the bright flash / an emptiness burns away / you trade the darkness of your mind / for the star of the age.”