Shearwater always seemed like a strange project to me. It was started by Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg, both better known for Okkervil River, supposedly as an outlet for their “quieter” songs. But Meiburg eventually came to think of it as his baby, and he left Okkervil in 2008 to focus on it exclusively. This is a bold move for a musician — Okkervil River is critically beloved and as close a thing to meal ticket as an indie rocker can hope for these days, whereas Shearwater’s more precious compositions seem destined to reach a smaller audience. But this is something I love about indie rockers — they’re forever abandoning the sure thing in favor of the great unknown. Think of Franz Nicolay leaving the Hold Steady, or Amy Klein leaving Titus Andronicus. At some point an entrepreneurial instinct kicks in and they think to themselves: I could do better on my own. And they give it a shot.

Shearwater is surprisingly old: It formed in 1999, and has released eight albums. For the most part I find the band’s work dull: each album finds Meiburg pensively noodling on guitar, perhaps with some light harp in the background, while he sings enigmatic riddles using five-dollar words. (“The silver shoals of the light in the deep brush the glittering skin where the great, dark body writes and the trembling jaw, the unfathoming sounds, of leviathan bound,” goes one not-unrepresentative lyric.)

But every once in a while Shearwater catches fire. “Century Eyes,” the galloping opener on 2008’s Rook, marks a welcome detour toward garage rock. “Castaways,” a deep cut from 2010’s The Golden Archipelago, might be the best showcase to date for Meiburg’s marvelous voice. Against a gorgeous melody, his vocal leaps from tender falsetto to a howl that could strip paint. He manages to convey through sound the image on that record’s cover, of a tiny boat sailing into a sunset — loveliness fading into something darker and more threatening. 

The band returned this year with Animal Joy, and it starts with a song as fine as anything Shearwater has done. “Animal Life” finds Meiburg rediscovering his pulse, belting out his gnomic pronouncements with stirring conviction. Thanks to Tom Breihan I know that the name of Shearwater’s drummer is Thor, a fact you may well have intuited simply by listening to his hammering here. “Animal Life” is kinetic in a way that few Shearwater songs are, and Thor propels it forward with real grace. It being a Shearwater track there is still some loveliness to be found — a chiming piano in the outro is characteristically magisterial — but ultimately the song has the kind of primal force suggested by its title. I may still not understand why Meiburg left Okkervil River, but tracks like “Animal Life” make me glad he did.

(track via indie-rock-jukebox)

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