Shearwater - "Breaking the Yearlings" (Animal Joy)
Wandering for over a decade now, the art rock indie ensemble Shearwater has collected more than half a dozen albums to carry in its rucksack. On Animal Joy, the group shows few signs that the load is getting too heavy. To the contrary, it now thumps and soars with enough energy to justify this new album’s title and cover art, both of which celebrate the unbridled vitality of nature. The huge feet that grace the front sleeve and the variety ofmany animals scattered throughout the liner notes all look poised to pounce. That’s appropriate: Animal Joy pulses with a recurrent percussive stomp that achieved nascent expression on earlier number such as “Rooks” and “Century Eyes,” but which now stands fully formed, in stark contrast to the more lyrical meanderings of earlier Shearwater records such as Everybody Makes Mistakes (and even the bulk of Rook for that matter). The result is not a great leap forward but a stationary jump — with one foot forward, another backward, and a hard landing on both feet.
Animal Joy is partly what it purports to be: filled with triumphant pop ballads that nevertheless retain a certain amount of the arational grit, particularity and wonderment that one associates with nature and its proverbial cries. Although the anthemic piano, soaring falsetto and swirling electronic effects of “Animal Life” and “You As You Were” are slick and self-important enough to be tawdry montage material, they are judiciously balanced with tougher sounds. “Breaking the Yearlings,” for instance, crinkles the laminate with aggressive syncopated click-clacks, heavy percussive pounds and eerie organ lines. Coolly swaying to sparsely adorned backbeats, “Dread Sovereign,” “Open Your Houses (Basilisk)” and “Believing Makes it Easy” give the listener a respite from the frankly non-naturalistic rendering of nature that characterizes too much of Animal Joy.
Liveliness, diversity, and balance, are generous characterizations. In the end, it’s hard not to hear Animal Joy as a bit of a hokey hodgepodge. There’s an all too bourgeois, rational animal melodrama to the images of nature conjured by Jonathan Meiburg’s lyrics and his band’s music. Meiburg’s strong, nimble falsetto is set to words that sometimes probe the abstract by focusing on concrete scenes and tangible objects. But if any musical strain could make his grandiose images resonant rather than ridiculous, it’s not the more or less formulaic, growing-pain pop that underwrites a number of the more vivacious tracks here — incidental eccentricities aside. On the frantic piano ballad “You As You Were,” for instance, Meiburg sings: “You could ride on the back of a shuddering beam, with a pistol, firing shots into the air / You could run in the blood of the sun’s hard rays, you could drive the mountains down into the bay.” The result makes one think of the infamous beach scene that mars Terrence Malick’s majestic picture The Tree of Life. Not because Meiburg and Company have a scintilla of Malick’s genius, but only because in both cases we’re confronted with an embarrassing mismatch between ambition and execution.