Jonathan Meiburg is an ornithologist–a guy who studies birds–though any geekiness that might imply stands in sharp contrast to the grace and poise he displays as the frontman and composer for indie rock outfit Shearwater. Still, read almost any interview with the guy and it becomes clear that, semi-retired though he may be, his day job still plays a big part in shaping his musical conceits. It’s certainly no surprise that the latest Shearwater disc, Rook, draws its name from a bird, and even depicts a man on its cover, seemingly engulfed by a flock of birds.
But his role as indie music’s resident naturalist doesn’t end there; his fascination with the created order is something he can’t shake, in his songwriting or his performance. It’s not just that Rook is the most organic Shearwater disc yet; the reverb that characterized earlier works is almost totally gone here, and electric guitars only figure into a handful of tracks. Even more obvious than that, though, is the fact that, more so than any Shearwater album yet, Rook emphasizes simple, straightforward, sometimes overpowering beauty–it’s the sound of someone who spends a lot of time contemplating the majesty of nature, and tries to recapture that sense of transcendence in his music.
And he comes pretty dadgum close. There’s always been a sect within indie rock that’s been concerned, first and foremost, with expressions of sheer, glorious beauty-the corner of indiedom where Sigur Ros hangs out. Rook could be its new poster-album. It’s an album rich in grand, even dramatic flourishes of beauty and melody, an album where melody reigns and instruments blend into harmonious tapestries, with Meiburg’s pristine, choirboy tenor–sounding vaguely like Jeff Buckley or a young Scott Walker, with Chris Martin falsetto–out at the front, narrating stories heavy on naturalistic imagery and fairy-tale narrative.
And it’s not just that his songs sound natural–they’re about nature, too. Not that it’s an environmentalist record, or one made our of worshipful adoration of the natural world. No, this is an album where nature is awesome and mysterious, sometimes even dangerous–in “On the Death of the Waters,” the singer tells a story of a grand, deadly storm, his voice eventually drowned out by washes of guitar and thundering drums, simulating nature’s untamed power. Other tracks–the title song, “Leviathan Bound,” “The Snow Leopard”–draw obvious inspiration from the created world, weaving spooky imagery and dramatic narrative into tales that inspire respectful awe of the world in which we live.
The music is fittingly versatile and dramatic, and the album itself is sequenced to be played as a piece. “On the Death of the Waters” is such a powerfully tense maritime fable that it works perfectly as a prologue, setting the tone and laying out the themes of the songs that follow. The rest of the album unfolds very organically, alternating between sweeping epics like “Home Life” and shorter pieces and palette-cleansers, like the instrumental interlude “South Col,” built only out of ghostly guitar feedback. Other songs are painted by harp, glockenspiel, horns, banjo, Meiburg’s delicate piano work, and, occasionally, abrupt storms of electrifying electric guitar.
It’s a mesmerizing, hypnotic work that’s difficult to play in small pieces; once the cycle starts, it demands to be listened to in its entirety. In the age of iTunes, that’s a pretty admirable feat. And though it’s difficult to figure out exactly what to call this music–it’s indebted a bit to later-period Talk Talk, but only a little– it’s tempting to label it as a new brand of folk–one in which a diverse spread of instruments and ideas work together not to serve the singer, but the story he’s telling. But whatever it’s called, it’s a haunting and beautiful album, and it stands not just as a compelling piece of music, but as a significant piece of art.