Shearwater: “The Golden Archipelago”

Call them old-fashioned: There’s nothing about Shearwater that makes any sense in the digital age. For one, there’s their commitment to the Album– a 38-minute cycle of recurring images and interlocking motifs, songs that bleed into each other and show a greater proclivity for dynamic ebb and flow than anything resembling traditional pop hooks. In other words, they won’t light the iTunes singles chart on fire. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that new album The Golden Archipelago— with its stark cover photo and its themes both gothic and ecological– is in large part the brainchild of Jonathan Meiburg, who, when he isn’t crafting classically-minded works of orchestral indie pop, makes a living as a bird scientist.

The Golden Archipelago might be their most antiquated (in the best sense of the term) recording yet; it isn’t as immediately stirring as 2008’s Rook, but its mysterious darkness suggests levels of depth and allure that make it Shearwater at their most rewarding. Actually, in some ways, it feels like it could almost be the debut of Shearwater the Band. Previously, their albums have always felt like the orchestrations of Meiburg, standing at a high podium and conducting waves of devastating beauty and deafening quiet with the wave of his hand, his baton directing every minor movement of his heaving, labyrinthine compositions. Here, Meiburg is still the maestro, but he’s also part of a band: The supporting players are still serving his vision, but their own contributions are woven deep into the music, as though they’re less vessels of Meiburg’s ecstatic whims, more full-on collaborators.

It’s an interesting dynamic that yields stirring results. The Golden Archipelago is a slightly more subdued and intimate recording than Rook, lighter on hooks and theatrics, more even and unwavering in its tone (to this end, Meiburg conjures no spirit more than that of Talk Talk, and not just because of his vocal similarities to Mark Hollis– with some Jeff Buckley histrionics thrown in for good measure). It’s an album expertly build on mounting tension and release, but never bereft of a certain quality of quiet dread mixed with hopeful introspection. But as coherent as the album is, it works within its sonic framework to distinguish itself as Shearwater’s most varied album; while Meiburg stretches his somber and slightly sinister mood over the album’s duration, his bandmates reach inside of themselves to find resourceful ways to allow each track to speak with its own voice, part of a greater picture but distinct nonetheless. Give credit to MVP Thor Harris, a drummer of remarkable skill and invention who enlivens these tracks with ethnic percussion and found sound, making rhythm the most savory flavor in many of these arrangements.

Meiburg is still less a pop songwriter and more a composer, of course, but he’s grown more confident, as as such a bit looser. There are none of the forays into noise-rock distortion that acted as palette-cleansers on Rook, but plenty of wide open spaces for simple piano refrains or acoustic guitar strumming. Horns and bells are used sparingly and with discernment, offering shading and dynamic variety. More than anything, Meiburg is an increasingly geographically-inspired soundscaper; the album is said to be inspired by “island life,” and it’s easy to visualize the thrilling discovery of previously unseen beauty in the wide-eyed unfolding of “Hidden Lakes,” or to picture the intricately jagged edges of beaches and cliffs in the taut, breakneck “Corridors.”

Meiburg’s lyrics are equally inspired by coastal landscapes and island ecologies; indie rock’s most eloquent ornithologist wove fairy tales and nature-walk diary entries on Rook, but The Golden Archipelago is more like gothic poetry mixed with travelogues alternatively exotic and desolate. Some of the themes are familiar ones– the beauty of nature, man’s dependence on it– but, perhaps ironically for a record inspired by the rugged coast, this is Shearwater’s most human record: Meiburg’s songs explore loneliness, solitude, and desire. He populates his soundscapes with real humanity, and lends considerable heart to his big crescendos. That adds to the record’s aura of mystery, but also its allure: It’s intriguing and affecting, a bit unusual but perfectly approachable– much like Shearwater itself.

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