Michael James Hall
, March 5th, 2012 09:08
For just over a decade Jonathan Meiburg, the man better known as Okkervil River's keyboard player, has used the Shearwater name as a vehicle for his myriad and ever-evolving musical and thematic interests. At first working with fellow Okkerviller Will Sheff, he created sad but deceptively intricate records like 2001's Drake/Buckley influenced acoustic masterpiece The Dissolving Room, a staggering, frozen beauty of an album drenched in supernatural angst.
Over the decade things have changed. With Sheff now long-gone and Meiburg in complete control since 2006's Palo Santo, we arrive at Animal Joy, Shearwater's seventh studio album and their first for Sub Pop.
Gone are the largely avian concerns of Rook and The Winged Life, replaced by a more general interest in humanity's relationship, both emotional and physical, with animals and nature as a whole. A lofty topic no doubt, but whether the listener can stomach Meiburg's extremely detailed, imaginative and ambitious - but potentially pretentious and off-putting - lyricism and musically ornate styling is another matter.
The first half of the album holds many of its more agreeable moments. The baroque half-electro, half-chamber rock of the arch 'Breaking The Yearlings', though melodious and at times suggesting a kinship with Talk Talk's intellectual production-pop is, ultimately, something of a muddle: hearing a near-robotic voice intone "And we are yearlings / Not watching the tide run out" is a near-irresolvable clash of form and content. The teasing sexuality of 'Dread Sovereign', a glamorous little number drenched in yearning and sophistication, is once more trampled by Meiburg's gothic/pastoral text, but remains enjoyable nonetheless. There's also the genuine album highlight 'You As You Were', which threatens to go all Muse before dropping gorgeous otherworldly notes over classic rock foundations and building to a magnificent crescendo while touching base with both Morten Harkett and the higher moments of Manchester Orchestra. It's a tremendous song that works so well simply because it's delivered with such conviction and considerably less concern for superfluous presentation then elsewhere on the album.
Often we dip further and further into the dangerously prog territory of 2010's jaw-droppingly brave/stupid Pink Floyd-go-indie epic Golden Archipelago - an album barely saved by the intentional fragility of Meiburg's voice, though not something his vaulting delivery allows for this time around. Dragging through the nearly invisible filler of 'Open Your House', the lacklustre, formless dirge of 'Pushing The River' tries to make up for its slackness by drowning everything out with rapid-fire percussion. The joyless 'Run The Banner Down' opens with promise before back-stepping into the by now tiresome list of mountains, snow, stars, lakes and whatnot that dominate much of the album. It all sounds a little bit too much like Genesis after the departure of Peter Gabriel.
If one is a longtime fan of the band perhaps it'll be easy to forgive Meiburg's melodrama and verbosity. After all, since Sheff left there's been a lot of it to get used to. But if a desire to tackle big themes means writing lines like "In the spinning darkness of our lives / Is when I see you again / In the moonlight" and delivering them like a karaoke Meatloaf, then it all becomes a bit of a big ask. Instead of a coherent collection of songs, Animal Joy feels like a series of very clever blueprints that, while admirable in form, are often (despite that title), rather bloodless.