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By Lauren Wise
By New Times
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A truck is on fire in the desert, black smoke billowing in the sky.
Two years ago, on tour through the desert west of Phoenix, Shearwater's van came upon a tractor-trailer on fire in the middle of the road. . The band members saw the smoke long before its source. The wall of flame spreading onto the interstate delivered an intense moment, feelings of worry, doom, and helplessness.
"It was this weird — almost apocalyptic — scene, and no one on the highway had the slightest clue what to do," the band's songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Meiburg says. The driver survived, but the fire destroyed the truck.
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That moment spawned a song — "Breaking the Yearlings" — but also drew Meiburg into a songwriting realm that explores immediacy and visceral emotions in a way he hadn't before. Animal Joy, Shearwater's eighth album, is a departure in number of ways: the band's first for Sub Pop, cover art that trades images of birds and islands for the claws of a charging bear, and songs that maintain the band's sense of drama while making a more primal connection.
On the band's prior albums — particularly the much acclaimed "island trio" of Palo Santo, Rook, and The Golden Archipelago — Meiburg's songwriting drew on his experiences as an ornithologist in places like the Falklands, Tierra del Fuego, the Galapagos, Madagascar, Nunavut, and New Zealand's Chatham Islands.
With a graceful and contemplative touch, Meiburg's writing approached humanity from the perspective of the natural world. The isolation and fragility of life on islands reflected back on the yearnings people have for order, joy, and wonder.
"Breaking the Yearlings," then, became a way into the animal world from a human perspective. It's a song about "confronting a moment or a force in your life you're not prepared for," Meiburg says. "How you try to deal with that while being very aware you don't have the resources you need."
Battered by a number of simultaneous changes in his life, Meiburg says that tumult helped frame Animal Joy. Instead of writing from a calm distance, he forced songs to come from chaos.
"One of the strange things about our species is, we're able to live so long forward and backwards in our own heads," he says. "The moments where you're most present in your body and your own breathing is when you're closest to the rest of the animal kingdom."
The departure took shape in the album's sound, as well. It's more instinctual than cerebral, more body than spirit, more rock 'n' roll than previous Shearwater outings. Animal Joy has a steadier thumping pulse, more skin and bones, more jaws and teeth.
"I was walking down the street with my dog one day, and I was thinking about how he lives in this eternal present. He wants to eat right now, he wants to sleep right now, he wants to walk right now," Meiburg says. "That present is a kind of joy, an animal joy. And that's the spirit I wanted to summon on this record, doing things when you're most alive, when you're most present in your own skin, and you might even be terrified. I just wanted to bring that emotional energy and intensity to this record."
Working out the songs for Animal Joy, Meiburg got a new guitar amp to channel that intensity and recorded a loud batch of demos in a crummy practice space.
"It was liberating," he says. "It was rough and loud and smeared and very alive. I knew that in that batch of songs was the record."
In the studio, with producer Danny Reisch (also the band's new touring drummer), Shearwater kept going back to those demos to preserve their best qualities: freshness, rawness, closeness.
It's a break from the past for Shearwater as a band (none of the current lineup besides Meiburg played on Animal Joy) as well as for Meiburg, personally and artistically. Striking out on something different is a notion that permeates the heart of the record, but it shows up most distinctly on "You As You Were," with Meiburg's repeating "I am leaving the life" at the song's climactic peak.
"I tend to shy away from confessional songwriting because I think it's been done so well by so many people and I want to take a different tack, if I can help it," he says. "But with this one, I wanted to try to connect with people more and not be so remote. And that meant mining my own life, things that were worrying me and bothering me when my life was transforming."