Featuring the intelligent, wide-angled lens of Jonathan Melberg’s songwriting, Shearwater have created an even bigger, more theatrical, more ambitious, more mind-blowing sound than ever before, whilst being more immediately accessible and intensely personal than the previous albums.
Originally formed as a collaboration with fellow Okkervil River member Will Sheff, songwriter Melberg has long since focused on Shearwater as his main project (with a stint of playing piano with Bill Callahan) and Sheff left to continue to front the increasingly successful Okkervil River.
Opening with a vocal somewhere between Richard Thompson and Kris Drever, Animal Joy builds towards a very Scottish folk-rock sound, perhaps not a million miles from Big Country.
Keeping up the 80s vibe on Breaking the Yearlings – the band, for this outing featuring Melburg himself, Kimberley Burke and Thor Harris – conjure up a vision of Pete Murphy’s Bauhaus with a brooding, swirling arrangement at odds with the folky opener but still sounding amazing.
Mining away at the musical coalface, Shearwater uncover a seam of late 80’s/early 90’s Marillion on You As You Were. This is the oft-dismissed Steve Hogarth on vocals era Marillion. Some people have never forgiven them for carrying on after Fish’s departure but it’s the floaty, haunting Hogarth vocal which is conjured by this track. And jolly lovely it is too.
For a band with an alt-country/folk-rock heritage the range of influence and styles is nothing short of staggering. Immaculate is conceivably a Maximo Park song you’ve never heard, weaving a tale of a reckless loner burning through life apace, “And you stand on the brakes to find nothing is happening” before rolling neatly into Talk Talk echoing Open Your Houses which fits the group’s plan to be an outlet for the quieter songs of Meiburg and Sheff.
Animal Joy is a big record, sonically big. It’s less raw, more polished than much of the Okkervil sound and perhaps explains why Shearwater aren’t quite the mainstream success – comparitively speaking – that Okkervil River undoubtedly are. The album benefits from repeated listens, a trait in itself possibly perilous in an age of such plenty and short attention spans.
Those who do stick with it will be rewarded. Like the hero of a Viking saga, your joy at discovering the Blue Nile-esque keyboardy meanderings of closer Star of The Age will be unconfined as the realisation dawns that there are still craftsmen out there; working tirelessly to bring us the fruits of their labours that we may rest easy with our headphones clamped over our ears.