It’d be a shame if Shearwater’s ultimate legacy was as Okkervil River’s de facto kid brother. Originally envisioned as an artier side project for the wordy indie-rock artisans of Okkervil, Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg, Shearwater has evolved considerably. A lot that’s due to the amicable division of labor between the two bands: Meiburg has emerged as Shearwater’s figurehead, while Sheff generally keeps to Okkervil River these days, and under the tutelage of their respective artistic directors, both outfits have blossomed into the most consistent, intelligent, exciting bands working under that vast, catch-all indie umbrella. Shearwater’s latest, Animal Joy, lets a bit of air out of their proggy chamber-pop ambitions, and replaces the Shearwater of Rook and The Golden Archipelago with a melodic urgency only hinted at in their previous outings. And in the process, we’re left with the sort of emotional immediacy that Okkervil fans likely missed with that band’s (excellent, but slow to absorb) latest LP, I Am Very Far.
And it’s apparent from frame one. Animal Joy kicks off with “Animal Life”, perhaps Shearwater’s most immediate song to date, cresting the foamy waves with the sort of restless slow-burn that The Talking Heads would’ve killed for in the Stop Making Sense days. Meiburg’s robust falsetto builds to a full-scale bellow by the song’s climax, and it’s clear that the indie kids in Shearwater have, at least temporarily, hung up their musical lab coats, condensing their album-length emotional catharses into tight 4-minute bursts. It’s a welcome change of pace for a band that made great music during the run of albums from Palo Santo to The Golden Archipelago (known as their “Island Arc”), but frequently lacked the editorial skills to streamline their ambitions into something that lands on first listen.
And so whatever hats Shearwater try on with Animal Joy, they often make their point succinctly and successfully. “You As You Were” builds on “Animal Life”‘s triumph, powered by dramatic crescendos and full-throated vocal harmonies; “Breaking the Yearlings” oozes the sort of coiled, hissing menace that Alice in Chains, of all bands to name-check, used to in their heyday; “Pushing the River” clings to the skeleton of a clattering, wonderfully controlled drum track (courtesy of their drummer, who, its worth noting, is named THOR), and organically arrives at the sort of desert mysticism and high-plains drama Live used to ham-fistedly manufacture in their early years. Divorced from high concepts, Shearwater sounds like Fleetwood Mac’s shimmering pop dramatics layered over Crazy Horse’s barely-restrained racket. And above it all floats Jonathan Meiburg’s voice, fragile where it needs to be and stalwart everywhere else, crooning reams of majestically lyrical imagery.
Make no mistake, Shearwater were good–great, even– before Animal Joy. And odds are, they’ll be good after. But for the first time, Meiburg and his merry crew of stargazers and nautical aficionados allow a record to go straight for the gut before coming back for the brain later; the results are thrilling, and suggest that, when it comes to Shearwater and Okkervil River in the grand tug-of-war for emotionally insistent indie-rock supremacy, Shearwater are the tortoise, finally keeping pace. Kudos all around for that.