Shearwater – The Golden Archipelago (2010)
by Jay Mattson
Jonathan Meiburg is astonishing. This claim is a bit forward, I know, but it is hard not to languish in his aptitude as he continually constructs emotionally evocative and fervent albums. Meiburg and friends have been releasing albums as Shearwater since 2001 even though his first project was Okkervil River, a folk act which he helmed with fellow singer/songwriter Will Sheff. Though Meiburg and Sheff wrote and performed in both bands for the first half of the aughts (’00s), they made an amicable split in 2006, leading Sheff to concentrate on the more energetic, literate Okkervil River and Meiburg to pursue emotional depths with Shearwater. This split turned out to be the best thing these two friends ever did; Shearwater’s 2006 album, Palo Santo, garnered more critical and fan praise than any previous Shearwater work. Similarly, Okkervil River released The Stage Names in 2007 and The Stand Ins in 2008 to high critical praise as two of their best albums to date. Rook, Shearwater’s fifth album, was my first exposure to Meiburg’s unique visions. I was giddy upon receiving The Golden Archipelago, as Baroque indie rock is Meiburg’s bread and butter and this album is the proof.
“Meridian”, a true-to-form mellow beginning to The Golden Archipelago, is primed by a barely-audible chant that smoothly slips into Meiburg’s solemn and soothing vocals to the backing of a soaringly simple acoustic chord or two. As has been already successful, the band adds new instruments into the song as it progresses, giving the track a swelling sensation that never actually climaxes and relieves itself. After all, this would not make much sense as the first song, now would it? The second track (and second single), “Black Eyes”, captivated me nearly as quickly as “Rooks”, the first single from Shearwater’s previous album. A triumphant piano opener gives into Meiburg’s epic vocal range to compliment the previous down-tempo’d sound. In the realm of indie-rock, piano and drums have rarely sounded more organic than in “Black Eyes.” Whenever I listen to Shearwater, it feels like the fantastical and meaningful soundtrack to some Lord of the Rings-esque tale of heroes, larger-than-life adventures and deep emotional pallets. The album-long themes of islands and water is explored on “Landscape At Speed”, while “Hidden Lakes” offers one of the most profound piano-driven tracks I have ever heard.
Of course, Shearwater did not rest on their laurels. “Corridors” is upbeat, energetic and full of fun, yet not overbearing electric guitars. Meiburg’s vocals offer the critical element, as he sounds confident (as opposed to the usual desperate) and brazen while the guitar eventually breaks down into reverb and static’s galor. More of a marching song than anything else, “Corridors” definitely stuck out as one of my favorite tracks simply because of its departure from Shearwater’s norm while still staying oddly familiar and grounded. Capturing a certain je ne sais quoi is one of Shearwater’s strengths and “Runners of the Sun” achieves this in spades by coupling mystical background instrumentation with a seemingly analog-recorded vocal track that mixes beautifully and pulls the audience in before falling into a deep piano crescendo. The album’s first single, “Castaways”, was a good choice to advertise the album, as it showcases some of Meiburg’s best vocal inclinations. He effortlessly warbles from only a slight of breath to a powerful call within the span of only a few lyrics. He hinges his imagery together with the guitar, drums and barely-audible piano to drive home the exact feeling of the title, like you are moving away from the civilization you knew into a territory that only Meiburg and his fellow bandmates can truly understand. He keeps this trend going with “An Insular Life” while once again adding elements to the instrumental mix that give a rigid, water-locked feeling. Surf-rock guitars and washed out background melodies bring forth a simple, yet effective sound that’s relaxing while also emotionally evocative.
The Golden Archipelago lives up to all my expectations. I was a little skeptical, upon hearing the announcement of a new Shearwater album, that perhaps Meiburg let the critical acclaim of Rooks go to his head, that he would try too hard and make an album that sounded like Shearwater was trying too hard to sound like Shearwater. What I got was a pleasant and straighforward reminder that this band is excellent and worthwhile, neither trying too hard nor too effortlessly. Their tightly recorded instrumentals paired with Meiburg’s hauntingly good vocals and emotional lyrics create albums that should not be skimmed, but fully appreciated as audiences immerse themselves into the world Shearwater has constructed using a few instruments and one incredible voice.