Shearwater’s journey from a ramshackle Okkervil River sister act to one of indie rock’s foremost purveyors of chamber-pop drama is one of the past decade’s great musical evolutions. Animal Joy puts an exclamation point on the story, largely avoiding the airy, avian-themed introspection of the band’s recent efforts in favor of fiery guitar work and a beastly rhythm section. Opening track “Animal Life” makes the group’s intentions clear, offering a restless tempo and a rhythmic emphasis Shearwater has often avoided; “Breaking The Yearlings,” all uncomfortable notes and thunderous drumming, stomps with mammoth feet.
Animal Joy, in its hunt for instinctual performance, comes close to the classic album Shearwater surely has in it; tracks such as “You As You Were” and “Pushing The River,” which blend energy with elegance, are already there. “You As You Were,” the set’s best track, rides on driving piano chords that nod to previous highlight “Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five” and re-imagines Fleetwood Mac as students of minimalist composition. “Run The Banner Down” finds Shearwater at its most evocative, making a plea to give in to trust over sparkling acoustic guitars: “Open your mouth / close your eyes,” Jonathan Meiburg sings.
At other times, however, the band’s new guise as Crazy Horse-style rockers leaves them feeling anonymous: The generic riffing of “Immaculate” and “Dread Sovereign” fails to improve on Neil Young’s louder works, much less the barbecued Americana of modern groups such as Centro-Matic. There are worse crimes, of course, and the band’s less patient listeners and ardent fans alike should be thoroughly pleased to hear Shearwater hitting the ground running instead of taking wing.