Let's just admit that Okkervil River misses Jonathan Meiburg. Or that it should. Since Meiburg left -- after the recording of The Stand-Ins -- both Okkervil River and Meiburg's band, Shearwater, have continued to expand their sound. But while Okkervil River seems to be losing its shape as it goes, Shearwater's vision continues to be ambitious while maintaining its clarity. If anything, the band has gotten stronger in time.
Following the three album "Island Arc" -- comprising 2006's Palo Santo, 2008's Rook, and 2010's The Golden Archipelago, all released on Matador (an earlier version of Palo Santo was originally put out on Misra) -- Shearwater has returned with Animal Joy, an album that twists the band's ambitious expansion by, well, reigning it in.
This seems counterintuitive, sure, but Animal Joy is built in lean parts. Songs like "Breaking the Yearlings" and "Dread Sovereign" are based around spare guitar riffs and driving drums (Thor is, always, excellent behind the kit). "Immaculate" takes this rock vibe to its greatest extreme, delivering a 2-plus minute power-pop number that feels wholly out of character for the usually dramatic, even stately band, but it works well. Meiburg's booming vocals fits the driving rock vibe, and shows the band capable of doing more with less.
Therein seems to lie the challenge in this album. Since its three predecessors grew as they went, building on the band's more folk-driven early sound, Animal Joy couldn't outsize them. So instead, Meiburg streamlines the sound here to often brilliant effect. "Animal Life" starts with guitar and voice, and builds into a shimmering pop song, but not in the same way anything on The Golden Archipelago did. This never lets go of its humble beginnings, never leaves them behind for dramatic volume, but instead just builds it out a bit, into something bigger but still sturdy, still contained within its close borders. "You As You Were" makes a similar move with a piano riff, layering steady drums and some electronic flourishes on it without obscuring it so that even when Meiburg goes from hushed keen to full-throated howl, it never loses control.
That's not to say that Animal Joy doesn't sound expansive, or contain its share of heavy layers. But where the previous albums felt orchestrated, controlled, this one has a more immediate energy to it, something spontaneous, even slightly cracked at the edges. It's a fitting shift for an album about lighting out into the wild, for shedding control in favor of feeling. The band can still knock out a hugely dramatic pop song -- the epic "Insolence" anchors the middle of the record -- but this record succeeds because the forest never obscures the trees, and this more fundamental approach never sacrifices shifts in tone. The moody "Open Your Houses" has the same lean riffage as the bouncing "Breaking the Yearlings." The pastoral roll of "Run the Banner Down" acts as a bittersweet counterpoint to the overcast grind of "Dread Sovereign."
Animal Joy is a big album built on small parts. Its size can be a bit much towards the end -- later songs like "Pushing the River" are solid, but repeat ideas from other songs on the record -- but on the whole its another strong set from Shearwater. It draws lines back to the "Island Arc" but gets at different textures. Control and ambition can go together, and Meiburg proves that, in the right hands, the combination can yield some exciting results.