Animal Joy

(Sub Pop; 2012)

By Kaylen Hann | 23 February 2012

At its depth, nature has a coldness approaching cruelty, and discovering its cruelties is sometimes as effortless as finding its beauty: just look it in the eye. There it all fucking is. The source of everything terror-inspiring, the tap root of the Sublime, looking things in the eye: it all seems to be at the crux of Shearwater’s aesthetic of hard-boned grace. They stare their songs down, one by one, never losing eye contact. From the lofty to the most involved, in-turned tracks, Jonathan Meiburg and his longer-term bandmates—Thor Harris (also of Swans) and Kimberly Burke (also formerly Mrs. Meiburg?)—cut clean into each song’s structure and meditate over every fiber, every tendon, constructing songs with an incisive beautifulness rendered from circumspection, detail, and complicated dualities.*

From the effete eeriness invading the narration and tone of The Dissolving Room (2001), to the coldness undercutting Rook (2008), and to the rapturous tumult of The Golden Archipelago (2010), Shearwater has never been all that far from that darkness at nature’s core; forever bathed in the shadows cast over their earliest tracks, they have always carried a little black on their breath, a little chill always raising the hackles, even as impassioned songs, like the chorus of sensitively invoked “Mulholland,” juddered my heart and made me feel like I was swallowing myself whole. Detailing a world of barbed wire in “Angelina,” falling through the rubble in a confiscated house, mustering up a grim bargain in “If You Stay Sober”: Meiburg’s from the onset evoked dark imagery, has been a deft harbinger of the foreboding, just as capable of delivering small deaths as delivering stunning sound.

At first the tracks of The Dissolving Room felt infected by the violent streak of early collaborative co-founder and Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff, his voice cracking like his pipes had been blasted by dry ice. Violence and darkness was never in Will Sheff alone, though; while it wracks Sheff’s voice ragged, the dark contrarily holds Meiburg’s voice in unassailable stature. It is that much more breathtaking to hear, with that darkness uncoiling from the unyieldingly beautiful-voiced frontman. And in the instance of Animal Joy, the band’s eighth album counting weird tour anomaly Shearwater Is ENRON (2010), that darkness pumps black from a guitar-wielding Meiburg like India ink, soaking into sprawling narratives that have no boundaries. Actually, “sprawling” doesn’t cut it: these are narratives that expand impossibly wide and, even as they pan out exponentially, resonate home in the chest cavity, tickle in the mouthcave as one’s tongue follows his verse through opening track “Animal Life” and its spritely, three-syllable-word line-endings that send his voice fluttering: ”lottery,” “gathering,” “confessional,” “ ephemeral.”

While the equal worship-ability of Meiburg’s voice and the complexity of orchestration are obvious entry points for basically every track, the nature he paints in Animal Joy is an overwhelming and menacing place wrought with impending storms (“the weather rolls until it’s on you”), floods (“feeling the flood break down [and suddenly breaks, and suddenly breaks]”), darknesses you could lose yourself in, and elements that take you apart completely. Even the sunbeams are blood that you walk through; you could wreck yourself on the landscapes that surround you—and, if Meiburg is adamant about anything, it’s that, well, you absolutely should. Literally, in “Open Your Houses.” And in the most strikingly Talk-Talk-comparison-friendly of Shearwaters’ tracks, “Insolence,” he confesses, into the abyss of ringing silence, “Sometimes I think I welcome it, what you are frightened of.” Before the smothering orchestration.

Not all foreboding in tone, “You As You Were” champions itself over a surprise bubbling up of Moonface-like vibraphone in an electronic gesture, likely trickling out as a result of previous experimentation in ENRON. Its momentum surges, its notes held so long as to make them vital and memorable head-over-shoulders from the average dirge; it reminds us, most obviously, Meiburg can just fucking do that. The album churns, track by track, with these dares: either fight that river forever, or look it in the eye. And he compels us to, asking, needling, “Where were you all your life, inside a chrysalis writhing?” It is an electrifying sentiment and his voice goes arterial like lightning, like a struck snake with an invigorated brio. In contrast to the majority of The Golden Archipelago, where his voice rode the songs or drove them from a lofty height, Meiburg has retreated deep into the chugging songmatter of more garage-rock tracks like “Immaculate,” muscling the noise around and scooping it up with his words made into cupped fists. Refreshingly, and uncommon in light of earlier albums, he sings from the thrust of the material, with the momentum itself briefly, impossibly, managing to snag the spotlight from his voice.

Seemingly bent on stirring shit up, “I wanna fight like lovers, wanna pull you over the line,” he says in “Dread Sovereign” challenging not only the consuming nature of, well, nature, but of relationships. The heavy symbols, the floods and darknesses, wield whopping allegories without actually allegorizing. Without giving itself up to the sound of parable or the polemic, they convey the swallowing-up of a relationship, of being overcome. To be that person waving the small white flag in the dark tide, and to be the one watching that small white flag, just as lonely and hopeless? It’s all about being lost, being cast out—even casting yourself out is something repeatedly driven into the lyrics.

Open your windows, pull across a line, because the space where terror occurs is where an attainable joy is possible: equally real, and equally controllable. Which is to say, not at all. The “animal joy” in question is the same fervor that shakes the exclamation point of D. H. Lawrence’s “Birds, Beasts and Flowers!”—the joy, according to Lawrence, is to be “Alone with the element; To sink, and rise, and go to sleep with the waters…To breathe from the flood at the gills.” And breathing from the flood at the gills is the same quivering momentaneity with which Meiburg gives himself over to us as draws us towards him. In beauty, in terror. This album creates that space, where both that source of fear and joy are simultaneous, inevitable, and sublime. “Sublime,” conveniently, also happens to be the way it sounds.