tl;dr summary: Animal Joy is an energetic record that doesn't lose the depth and quality of the last three. Shearwater fans are almost certain to love it, and people who were turned off in the past should give it a try. Sure to be one of my albums of the year.
I've been a Shearwater fan since they released the incredible Palo Santo (Bonus CD) (Exp) (Dig) in 2007. I loved 2008's Rook and 2010's The Golden Archipelago equally. They're frequently treated as a trilogy, but I've always thought that overblown. They differ in subject matter, instrumentation, even lyrical style. Palo Santo lyrics seem almost Shakespearean or King James Biblical, Rook sounds like the Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales, Golden Archipelago like poetry from a war front.
They do share qualities: high stakes in the subject matter, images drawn from the natural world, an unapologetically dramatic bent to the performances (but fully appropriate to the songs), excellent musicianship, dense and rich soundscapes, and the unearthly voice of Jonathan Meiburg. Despite these common qualities, some people who liked Palo Santo were put off by the conceptiness and remoteness of Rook and TGA. I can understand: many people want songs that can relate directly to their own lives.
Animal Joy succeeds at splitting the difference: it's an album about people, about love and betrayal and loss and overcoming grief. But it doesn't lose sight of the wider world or indulge in mopiness or excessive navelgazing. And it mostly shares those qualities I identified above. It's unmistakeably a Shearwater album, but more immediate and close-to-home than ever.
Instrument use is much more economical: songs are based almost entirely around guitar, bass, keys, and drums. The drums are the most immediate change you notice when listening. With a few exceptions (Run the Banner Down), they're not as expressive or musical as previously, but they're far forward in the mix and produce an interesting immersive feeling. One of my few complaints about the album is that the metronomic kickdrum on Animal Life and You as You Were is house techno-esque and slightly distracting as a result.
While Jonathan Meiburg's voice is one of the most unique aspects of the band, it can make or break your appreciation for them. Some people are just not comfortable with beautiful voices. Part of the reason that Thom Yorke of Radiohead gets away with his falsetto is that his voice, though strong, is gritty and cracked. While there's nothing fey or precious about Meiburg's vocals, his pure voice - frequently compared to Mark Hollis of Talk Talk (I agree) and Antony Hegarty (not so much) - turns some people off. Which is a shame, but what can you do.
Just write great songs, I guess, and hope that people get something out of them. And Animal Joy is stuffed with great songs and incredible lyrics. I've been trying to decide on a favorite song for weeks, and just can't choose among You as You Were, Insolence, Open Your Houses (Basilisk) and Believing Makes It Easy. However, the rest of the album is almost as appealing. To me there aren't any filler tracks or real weaknesses.
Reading other reviews, the most controversial track is probably Immaculate, which sounds like nothing so much as Fables-era REM. It is very different from the rest of the album and not nearly as hard-edged as previous raveups like Red Sea Black Sea, Century Eyes, and Corridors, but it's a catchy song with some great lyrics. I like it and I bet you will too.
Also unlike earlier albums, it's a great album to work out or run to.