Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg had been feeling out of sorts. The one-time Cary resident and choir singer built a brand of dramatic orchestral rock that earned Shearwater glowing and growing plaudits with each release of the band's Island Arc trilogy -- 2006's Palo Santo, '08's Rook and 2010's The Golden Archipelago.
Those records capture the surreal sense that the natural world is vanishing before our eyes, a not surprising topic of interest for the naturalist Meiburg, who is also a trained ornithologist. The music embodies that loss, owing more to the lonely narcotic drift of Talk Talk's seminal Laughing Stock/Spirit of Eden than any bloated prog-rock touchstones or the current indie auteurs he's often associated with. But in getting there, Shearwater's songs have, especially with The Golden Archipelago, reached a state of such dreamy ethereality that they hardly seem to belong to the concrete world anymore.
By the time Shearwater played a January 2011 show in Austin, Texas, featuring the Island Arc trilogy played in its back-to-back-to-back entirety, Meiburg had already made up his mind — enough of that. He wouldn't rule out playing the old stuff occasionally, but new Shearwater, who will visit the Evening Muse on Feb. 28, was headed in a more visceral and earthy direction. In doing so, it would genuinely embody the composer's more grounded sense of self.
"I had a feeling of being in my body, of re-inhabiting my body, in a way that I hadn't in a while," the 34-year-old Meiburg says of the period leading up to Shearwater's seventh full-length, the newly released Animal Joy. So "I wanted the record to have a body, not just a brain."
And so Shearwater, which began life in 1999 as a hushed side project for Meiburg and Okkervil River's Will Sheff, underwent a transformation as it had in 2005 when Sheff left. Meiburg brought in new recording partners, including Wye Oak's Andy Stack. New producer Danny Reisch (Okkervil River) captured the band's new stripped-down palette, and new mixer Peter Katis (Interpol, The National, Jónsi) added more of a pop feel. There was a new label, Sub Pop, and even a new touring line-up, too.
Of course, it's still Meiburg's operatic pipes that define Shearwater. How could they not? His gossamer falsetto and urgent roar pair with trad-rock instrumentation, plus an occasional flourish or three, on Animal Joy. Freed from orchestral decorations — "No strings or glockenspiels were touched during the making of this album," reads the pre-release publicity — and lyrically more personal than previous recordings, Meiburg's feral imagery is matched by insistent tempos and volatile dynamics.
All of that mirrors Meiburg's new direction, his rejection of "the dulling armor plates" of consciousness and his turn toward the "half-remembered wild interior" he sings about on opener "Animal Life" (and nods to everywhere else).
Meiburg cites the spring-taut "Insolence" and open-throttled "You As You Were" as "the beating heart" of the record. They parallel his experience of "being emotionally, and even physically, to some degree, broken open and re-made" after the previous release closed the Island Arc era.
It's surely the result of a busted heart or some other significant loss, right? Not necessarily, says Meiburg. Sometimes, he insists, you wake up one day and you're just a different person. Getting back in harmony between the projected you and the new you "is sometimes a really painful process," he says, "and that's what this record is about."
Whatever the reasons, Meiburg turned to his instincts to see him through. It was a wise choice, frankly, since that's where Animal Joy was taking him anyway. Like the no-nonsense set of hi-res Grizzly claws on the LP's cover suggest, our animal selves tend to slice through the usual mental/cultural bullshit to get to the nub of things.
With our "outsized brain," Meiburg says, we make "alternative worlds to inhabit, either in the future or the past. Sometimes they bear little resemblance to the one that we're in. And when I think about animal joy, I think about the fierceness, the urgency of animal's lives.
"We've decided to fool ourselves to thinking that we aren't animals, but we most certainly are. The moments when you feel you're experiencing life at its fullest are sometimes few and far between, but they can feel like the truest moments of your life."
$12 in advance. Feb. 28. 8 p.m. The Evening Muse.