Stunningly and articulately composed, backed by reams of research and a 50-page supplemental booklet, Shearwater’s The Golden Archipelago is the kind of album that makes other bands look lazy. The third part in a trilogy started with 2006’s Palo Santo, the musical element of a sociological examination, Golden Archipelago is also perfectly compelling on its own, a success both on intellectual and more visceral terms. Originally formed by Okkervil River members Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff as an outlet for the band’s quieter sound, Shearwater spent a few years feeling like a less accomplished side project.
The soundtrack to your next chill-sesh As if scoring a devastating movie scene in which the main character drives alone through the rain, pondering his weighty problems, Shearwater frontman Jonathan Meiburg emotes in a velvety bellow while pianos clatter and echo, and guitars peek through the shadows, making for gorgeous, endlessly serious music. The Golden Archipelago, Shearwater’s sixth release, sticks with the plot. But whereas the ethereal solemnity of its previous album, Rook, was manifest in memorable hooks, the 37-minute Archipelago meanders through its own foggy-graveyard atmospherics.
If you’ve visited Shearwater’s website over the last couple of months, you’ll have been greeted by an arresting, scratchily-filmed series of images – of mist over mountains, damaged flags and roiling sea-waters; of travel journals and captains’ logs, bloodied bird carcasses and satellite grabs. It’s all part of the story. See, The Golden Archipelago is Shearwater’s most ‘visual’ project yet.
Some claim albums as a format are dying out, and I keep refusing to believe it. I don't think economics or the slipperiness of mp3s will save it, so much as musicians who like the format will. It lets them say something a single track often can't, and it's hard to figure a better way to capture a snapshot of where a band is in its creative life. Based on The Golden Archipelago, Shearwater are perfectly served by the medium.
On 2008’s magnificent Rook, Shearwater finally delivered on the promise of previous albums with a taut, hook-filled batch of art rock singles that were as emotionally powerful as they were melodically sound. For their sixth full-length offering, Jonathan Meiburg and company have crafted an ambitious, occasionally maddening ode to the natural world that owes more than a little tip of the hat to mid-'70s Peter Gabriel and the quieter moments of Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut. The Golden Archipelago, a toothy, epic examination of island life, both physical and metaphysical, is enigmatic to say the least (the Deluxe Edition includes a massive sepia-tone 75-page “dossier” that could have easily served as the foundation for an episode of ABC’s Lost), but it lacks the magic of Rook’s more muscular moments.
Over their past two albums—Palo Santo and Rook—Shearwater have giving us a well-orchestrated, shimmering beauty. It’s often fragile, like the high falsetto of singer Jonathan Meiberg’s voice. Also, like Meiberg’s voice, their sound can erupt into rumbling power. On those last two albums, Shearwater would sneak up on you with their strength.
Claiming that your album represents what living on an island is like is a move that could easily find you deep into hokey hippie territory. So it’s something of a credit that Shearwater’s The Golden Archipelago ends up providing at least a rough sketch of what we can assume life is like on a string of islands: There’s rain and a lot of water, and the sunsets and sunrises are probably pretty awesome. But this is the album where Shearwater’s temporal-rock ambitions get the better of them; too much of The Golden Archipelago plays like transitory film-score pieces meant not to connect with listeners but to provide one part of a bigger picture that is never provided.
Shearwater get more ambitious with each release. Their latest - the third in a triptych that also included 2006's Palo Santo and 2008's Rook - features 11 songs about islands, both literal and metaphorical. For some bands, that might serve as a loose conceit, but Shearwater explore the concept from every angle. Opening with a recording of the national anthem of Bikini Atoll as sung by exiles in the South Pacific, the album shifts perspectives and runs the emotional gamut from sorrow to joy.
When it was announced that Jonathan Meiburg would be leaving Okkervil River to solely focus on Shearwater, surely, we knew that such a focus would only improve the latter’s sound. While we still await the former’s first album without him, there is no denying the pure quality Meiburg brought into the recording studio. A skilled pianist, a crafty songwriter and his distinctive voice are just a few of the aspects that make him worthy to have his own band to lead, on his own.
There’s no getting round it: Shearwater’s latest is a profoundly beautiful record. James Skinner 2010 Buoyed by Jonathan Meiburg’s tremulous vocals and constantly in thrall to the natural world, Shearwater’s music is a rich, suggestive thing. Probing appreciation of our environment has manifested itself across their discography; most recently on 2008’s excellent Rook, which masterfully evoked all manner of avian concerns (principally, that of flight itself).