When you get tired of songs about romantic love, what is there left to seek out? For starters, there is the natural world all around us. Some bands construct not just songs but entire albums from this inspiration. While the following musicians may not actively consider themselves naturalists (though I think one or two in this list surely would), I am using the word in its broadest sense, as pertaining to the study of natural objects, organisms, and environments. In reverse chronological order by release date, here are a handful of albums with a noticeably naturalist bent, for the observers and explorers in us all.
Mimicking Birds, Eons (2014)
Evoking the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, Mimicking Birds had an effective first release that included the catchy yet aching “Burning Stars.” But last year’s Eons shows them exploring their early ideas with a new confidence. A line in the first track, “can you or can you not trust your inner compass enough not to hurt someone?” sets the stage for an album about the personal colliding with the universal, about humans making peace with their place. The intricate instrumentation rises and recedes to lyrics about time and mountains doing the same. “Night Light” and “Bloodlines” contemplate the past generations that make up our present selves, and outer space is a constant topic. Lines like “corn fields turn beige and into mazes/ planetary systems go through certain phases” and “just the other day the sun was rising/ and Saturday the sun turned into a black hole” make this album a potential companion piece to Interstellar. The distinct guitars and keys, not to mention the singer’s versatile voice, give a wonderful texture to the large ideas. A final acceptance is stirringly summed up in the closing crescendos of “Moving On,” suggesting that there is comfort to be found in the mysteries.
Death Vessel, Island Intervals (2014)
Death Vessel hails from the opposite American coast, finding inspiration in the craggy rocks and cold spray of New England, but under a more theatrical guise. The album opens with a slow and ominous song in which we are invited “to go the way of all ejecta living unbound.” Things get catchy after this introduction, with a string of puzzling yet intriguing lyrics like “I require liquid Europa/ hacking out her frozen globe for an iota.” The liner notes suggest that each song is loosely crafted around a constellation (real or imagined, I can’t quite tell) and the album shows an economy of execution. At only eight songs, there’s not a moment wasted: each click and pause seems perfectly placed, and the sky-high vocals are uniquely engaging, especially when layered with backups. There’s a bit of a minstrel quality to the whole thing, as if the band is a group of messengers from another plane, communicating the strange sounds of the islands in the title. There are multiple emotional touchpoints, from “Ilsa Drown” which features Icelandic singer Jónsi, to the hopeful chorus of “we agreed that life keeps on going” in the penultimate song. Bring your headphones with this album queued up when you are sprawled at the end of a rickety dock under a clear night sky.
Shearwater, Animal Joy (2012)
Do you need something new on your running playlist that gets the blood moving while reminding you of your own animal nature? Try Animal Joy, in which Shearwater ups the pace and volume in their own feral way. The opening “Animal Life” sets the stage for what’s to come, quickening the heartbeat with a burst of phrases about “chambers like the rooms a swallow made” and “surging at the blood’s perimeter/ the half-remembered wild interior of an animal life.” The next song keeps the momentum high, and ourselves close to the beasts, with its refrain of “we are yearlings.” Jonathan Meiburg’s voice works wonders, moving between whichever boom or croon a song demands. I interpret the lyrics that accompany the keyboard rhythm of “You As You Were” as a portrait of a young Charles Darwin discovering new natural and emotional truths. And the most profound statement on nature is made during the climax of “Insolence”—the lines “where were you all your life?/ inside a chrysalis, writhing” are effective on their own, but are then underscored by the proclamation “and it’s real, and it’s real.” Shearwater has worked hard to craft moving rock music that reminds us of our humanity and why it matters: simply because our animal lives, our animal joys, are real.
“My love, I am the speed of sound” bursts the opening lines of Neko Case’s contribution. With a nod to the title, she paints a personal history by tracing the trajectory of a weather pattern that “smashed every transformer with every trailer/ ‘till nothing was standing/ 65 miles wide.” Her commanding voice and catchy rhythms give a lot of life to the alt-country tunes, with “People Got A Lotta Nerve” as the standout single. Its chorus of “I’m a maneater/ but you’re still surprised when I eat ya” is a concise example of Case’s angle throughout the album, which combine relationship woes with animalistic impulses. (This song also boasts memorable lyrics about the dangers of underestimating killer whales.) While not every song is explicitly nature-based, it’s enough of a theme to paint the whole album with that feeling. “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” is an intriguing track that could be an environmentalist plea or a warning that the mother is dangerous (hearkening back to “This Tornado Loves You”). The pinnacle for me is “I’m An Animal,” a tight and catchy ode to owning up to mistakes and shortcomings, and finding peace with being a beast. Finally, the album’s reflection on our unglamorous position in the natural order is neatly summarized in “The Pharaohs” when the narrator realizes, “I want the pharaohs, but there’s only men.”
Modest Mouse, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (2007) and The Moon and Antarctica (2000)
When it comes to bands who creatively evoke the weirdness of the natural world, Modest Mouse is royalty. They can give a master class in imagery, and that talent pairs well with their hook-filled yet twisty songcraft. “Treat me like the sea/ oh so salty and mean” goes one of the early lines from their 2007 release, leading into a rollicking album of high seas, low tides, and leaky vessels. The classic Modest Mouse contradictions are on display (“like trying to hide the daylight from the sun”) and the sounds themselves work to set the scene for the listener. The guitar notes partway through “Little Motel” give life to the falling star narrated in the introspective tune (prepare your heart before watching the music video for this song). Some pieces are bright and poppy, like the clever “Missed the Boat,” while others are serious, such as the unparalleled “Parting of the Sensory.” To speak of nature is to speak of death, and this song has some of the best writing on the topic I’ve heard. Isaac Brock delivers punctuated lines about the “old, old mystery” and “carbon’s anniversary,” contemplating “a lifelong trip to the exact same spot.” The coda causes your feet to stomp but your spine to shiver.
Years earlier, the band set the stage with the notable The Moon and Antarctica. Similarly thoughtful and frenetic, many listeners are familiar with some of the galactic refrains like “the universe is shaped exactly like the earth/ if you go straight long enough you’ll end up where you were.” There are quick catchy songs about familiar beasts (“I Came as a Rat” and “Wild Packs of Family Dogs”) and slower meandering tunes about the locales of the title (“The Cold Part,” “Alone Down There”). After the album goes from cities to stars and back again, the concluding trio of tunes is grouped around the concept of our weird human lives. Sentiments include the hopeful lift of “it’s hard to remember we’re alive for the first time,” the searching quality of “in this life like weeds you’re the dirt I breathe,” and the cynical conclusion of “What People Are Made Of” (it’s not smiles and sunshine). Modest Mouse has an obsession with presenting humans and the physical world they stumble through in a challenging yet accessible way. These are albums that continue to open inward on repeat listens.
Honorable mention: multiple songs by Bad Religion
Since the early 1980s, no one has done more for science-minded music than these punk veterans. Because the band’s lyrics lean more heavily into the socio-political, they do not have any one album with an obvious nature theme. However, plenty of their late-career tunes have continued to touch on what it means to view the world with a naturalistic mindset. They were frontrunners not just in shaping a genre, but in promoting the idea that serious inquiry could be married to music. Thanks for that, BR.
So, it’s still possible to find fertile ground amidst the saturated lyrical landscape. Start with some animals (go ahead and even put some in your band’s name) and then expand to include all the ways that humans grapple with the real and the profound. Our songs themselves are part of the natural world, so we may as well engage with the surroundings.
Which naturalist albums have you enjoyed?