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Shearwater’s “Animal Life” balances the human and animal

Shearwater, Animal Joy

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, in honor of our Best Films Of The Decade So Far list, we’re talking about songs from some of the best records of the decade so far.

Shearwater, “Animal Life” (2012)

“More accessible” is sometimes used scoffingly—here’s a song so bland and hooky that you don’t even have to think to enjoy it!—but sometimes it’s a key that unlocks a stream of gorgeous melodies and thunderous, muscular chamber pop. Shearwater’s 2012 album, Animal Joy, kicks off with its most accessible song, “Animal Life.” Overlaying the melody—which is more quietly triumphant than catchy, though it is that as well—Jonathan Meiburg proves his reputation for smart lyrics that often form a kind of non-linear narrative of avian allusion and natural wonder.


Shearwater’s earlier work is more clearly grounded in folk-rock, but on Animal Joy the band expresses itself a little more fully and loudly. There’s hints of this on earlier albums, particularly 2008’s Rook, but Animal Joy cuts loose the strings and soars with confident percussion and the intent to make a little noise. (This becomes especially evident in Shearwater’s live shows; perhaps touring with Dinosaur Jr. rubbed off on the group).

The quiet guitar that opens “Animal Life” is soon interrupted by confident vocals that seem right on the verge of falling out of rhythm. The percussion—delivered on album by the mighty Thor Harris, also of Swans—doesn’t rise to a crash until more than halfway through the song, and the song peaks on its last word, a quick build-up and release. It’s a near-perfect example of what the group does best, bringing animalistic energy to bear against both the virtue and brokenness of humanity. As the song builds, the imagery becomes more evocative: “charging down the maw of the ocean” and “cast away like dogs from the shelter.” Meiburg’s voice opens up near the end, softening a little as he heads into what may be the most powerful lyrics on the album. More than just a key, this song is accessible because it taps into primal urges, without ever really losing control, because those urges are but a trace in all of us: “And surging at the blood’s perimeter / the half-remembered wild interior / of an animal life.”

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