Over the course of its decade-long life, Jonathan Meiburg’s Shearwater has excelled in developing atmosphere and texture within an indie-rock context. With Animal Joy, the band doesn’t drop that skill, but it utilizes the approach in a more intense setting. Where the band previously went for “sweeping,” it’s now focused on “driving,” and by combining the old approach with a new, more immediate energy, the group’s created the best album of its career.
Although opener “Animal Life” starts softly, it hints at what’s to come. The straight eighth notes that begin the album will return in various ways throughout the album. On occasion that building block of steady groove suggests some of Spoon’s work, but that other Texas band has rarely been as visceral with its form. “You As You Were” uses the same sort of opening, but the changed tempo and different build leads to different experiencing; here, the song juxtaposes quicker notes with a more meditative impulse until briefly hinting at an alternate-universe Billy Joel (in a good way).
“Immaculate” stands as the peak of the rocking songs on Animal Joy. It’s got touches of various classic rock acts from the ‘70s, but nothing that can quite be pinned down. At less than two and half minutes, it’s got more nuance in performance than should be expected and ends too quickly. As the central song on the album, it seems to hold some sort of organizing secret, but it resists that reading as the band does too many other things on this album (which also flies by).
The disc’s slower numbers owe more immediately to Shearwater’s previous releases, but they mark a shift, too. What they’ve retained and improved upon include the arrangements and production. Many of these cuts have a high number of instruments in use. Given a headphones listen, the disc reveals itself to filled with small flourishes, hidden effects and the like. However, the disc is produced with a cleaner sound than most of its predecessors, keeping space for everything, so that the sound never bogs down in busyness. It listens almost like an electronic album, but it does so while providing either assertive rock or atmospheric pop (or, more accurately, a coherent continuum), with precise arranging consistent through all tracks.
By combining the group’s most noticeable skills from the past and developing surprising new musical attacks, Shearwater has set a new standard for itself. Animal Joy provides not only a well-developed and unique aesthetic, but it offers a way in for a number of listening styles, a fact that should keep the album rewarding.