Animal Joy (Sub Pop)
Reviewed by Adam Schragin, Fri., Feb. 17, 2012
ShearwaterAnimal Joy (Sub Pop)
"We're having trouble taming this one, but luckily, we don't really want to," announced Jonathan Meiburg via a press release regarding Shearwater's seventh full-length, Animal Joy. The LP notes also pointedly state that "No strings or glockenspiels were touched during the making of this album." Harp was, however, so you'd be correct in guessing that Animal Joy isn't quite the musical departure fleeting imaginations might have expected. The pace of the album by the principle trio of Austinites – singer/composer/guitarist Meiburg, with bassist Kimberly Burke and percussion dynamo Thor Harris – is robust, with guitars crackling feedback and the frontman's voice strong and sure. Early career potholes like the almost sleepy malaise of the middle and end of 2002's Everybody Makes Mistakes, are absent. Animal Joy has a focus and progression, the opener "Animal Life" entering on a soft guitar strum and Meiburg's call: "Born inside the gates of a family/Hardened by a roman machinery." Harris' insistent, smartly placed percussion drives the song at a higher speed than most of the Shearwater catalog. "You as You Were" leads with piano that gathers a (nonstring, apparently) orchestra of sounds as it percolates, once again pushing forward with an itchy pace and no room to nod off: "You could drive the mountains down into the bay/Or go back to the east/(Where it's all so civilized)," Meiburg almost spits before soberly, bitterly intoning, "I am leaving the life!" in a passionate crescendo. An awe of the universe outside our influence has always inspired Shearwater's work, notably the band's ambitious Island Arc trilogy of albums, and the content and imagery of Animal Joy likewise takes its approach from this open investigation into the natural world. Here, Shearwater's animal is one at peak function, its moments sleek and without remorse, mind and body in tight synchronicity. Only occasionally do the reigns really slip, as on the album's longest track, "Insolence," in which Meiburg's bellow becomes almost a wail, the rhythm pushes into noise, and the song loosens and becomes wild. The inner eye opens, and just as quickly shuts. It's enough.
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