Shearwater - Animal Joy

©Sub Pop, Matador Records, Shearwater; Image credit: Sub Pop, Matador Records, Shearwater

Shearwater are, in many ways, a band of contradictions. Formed by two members of Texan indie heavyweights Okkervil River with the intention of creating music more folk-influenced than that of their main project, by the time of 2010’s critically acclaimed The Golden Archipelago they were more rock than Okkervil have arguably ever been. This trend continues on new release Animal Joy, a record that struggles to walk the line between fervently infectious and deeply frustrating.

A cursory first listen to this album seems to suggest that all the ingredients are present to make this something approaching a classic. With Jonathan Meiburg’s powerful vocals leading the way, the immediate impression is that Animal Joy is a well-crafted journey through potent emotional landscapes. At its best, this is searing indie rock at its most defiantly listenable. The likes of opener 'Animal Life' and 'Dread Sovereign' are the sound of a band on a formidable wavelength, breaking out all the stops to create songs that exude as much natural passion as many bands exact over the course of an entire album.

Yet Animal Joy, for all its posturing, fundamentally lacks the consistent strength that makes this kind of emotive rock music genuinely work. Perhaps it is that Shearwater are trying too hard to capture the pioneering intensity of Swans, with whom drummer Thor Harris has spent the last eighteen months or so; or perhaps it is that Animal Joy was rushed into rather than delicately put together as it should have been. There is a lot of pent-up tension on this album but, with the exception of three or four tracks, that tension is never allowed to explode into anything truly spectacular.

Sadly, Animal Joy is just one of those albums that does not really sound like it knows whether it is meant to be optimistic, pessimistic or somewhere in between. The likes of 'You as You Were' may be forcefully affecting but too much of the time Animal Joy is bogged down in a muddy well of insecure and uncertain feelings. It ultimately lacks the consistency that made their last two records at least so devastatingly effective. Thus, despite its notable high points, what Shearwater have delivered here proves to be two steps backwards rather than another well-deserved step forwards.

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