Shearwater have produced songs of beauty, anger and even at times progressive rock. One thing they have never been up until now is commercially appealing. Animal Joy, their first album on Sub Pop after a move from Matador, changes that.
Animal Joy features largely three to four minute pop songs, rock riffs and pulsating bass intros. It’s still Shearwater, the band formed by former Okkervil River keyboardist and environmentalist Jonathan Meiburg, but with the key difference – a chance of chart success.
It’s a change that not only works well and gives some extra bite to their tracks, but after the prog rock leanings of their last album The Golden Archipelago, a stunningly researched musical treatise for the plight of the world’s islands, it is perhaps a wise career choice.
The subject matter on Animal Joy is still fiercely green, focusing on familiar territory for Shearwater of the beauty and horror of nature, but this time around pretty much all the tracks could be a single, with the exception of the slightly Euro-pop sludge of final track, Star of the Age.
Only one deliberately skewed guitar note after the chorus on the title track, which opens the album, hints that this is the work of a small, alternative rock band from Texas. Breaking the Yearlings, with its rock bass intro and menacing keyboards is a real statement that Shearwater now feel they are ready for more success. The band also find time for a 12 bar blues single in Immaculate, complete with that most classic of lyrical rock standards, a loner called Johnny. It’s my favourite on the album.
Even the nearly seven-minute long Insolence has the potential for a wide audience, like a mix of Radiohead and Talk Talk’s later albums, in particularly Laughing Stock. Pushing the River has echoes of The National, with its off kilter drum beat. More than anything this track shows just how blessed Shearwater are, not just for having Meiburg’s stunning vocals, but also the considerable drumming talents of Thor Harris.
While Animal Joy’s quality should earn the band more than just praise this time around it may take the wider music buying public a while to cotton onto Shearwater’s blend of indie rock and environmentalism. Many other reviewers have dismissed parts of this album as a transitional phase. I disagree, with Phil Ek taking production duties, the band have already evolved into a potentially powerful force in rock music while still sticking to their alternative and environmental roots.
by Joe Lepper