Review: Shearwater's "The Golden Archipelago"

This is a re-post from the Bearcast Music blog. Head over there to check out reviews of current albums, which can be heard on Bearcast. I wrote this review on Sunday, February 21, 2010.

Shearwater’s latest outing, The Golden Archipelago, fits nicely alongside the band’s previous albums Palo Santo and Rook. Whereas Palo Santo was about the horrors of war, and Rook was about the splendor of nature, The Golden Archipelago marries the two concepts and explores how man’s brutality affects the natural world.

“This is how I learned the lie that power breeds regeneration.”

Shearwater has come into its own, and can no longer be considered a side-project of fellow Austin, TX band Okkervil River. Shearwater Mk. II’s output has been consistently haunting, atmospheric, and environmentalist. Their lyrics and melodies paint an impressionistic landscape, with images that jab out with stark vividness before fading back into the ether.

The Golden Archipelago is a narrative album, based on frontman Jon Meiburg’s travels to islands in the Pacific. This trip followed the footsteps of his grandfather, who was a radio operator in World War II. His grandfather’s story frames the album, contrasting his military life with the islands that were being destroyed in the fight.

“His eyes on the waves, and a god below the waterline.”

Meiburg’s vocals remain his best strength, as he sings with tremendous clarity and range. In a single song, he will transition from a falsetto whisper into a bellowing wail, as in the album’s first single “Castaways.” What’s remarkable is that he’s often kept low in the mix, obscured by the wall of sound that’s built around him. When his voice pierces through, it leaves an indelible mark on the song.

The cerebral nature of the lyrics and softness of the melodies makes the band difficult to classify… Until you hear the drums. Percussionist Thor Harris ushers the compositions along with driving, often tribal beats on tracks like “Corridors” and “Landscape at Speed.” Where drums are inappropriate, Harris mans the vibraphone, contributing to the complexity of the melodies. A drummer named Thor hammering on the skins? That sounds like a rock band to me.

“Where the hull scrapes the silent eyes and the gulls on the frozen ropes.”

The standout track of the album is “God Made Me,” which brings the family aspect of the story to the forefront. It starts out with timid strings mimicking a chorus of insects, coalescing into a simple melody alongside Meiburg singing about witnessing some horrible catastrophe. The song builds to a tremendous crescendo of exploding electric guitar chords… Suddenly halting, giving way to a short denouement of strings and guitars, like fading air-raid sirens, as if nothing had happened at all.

The Golden Archipelago is not a perfect album, but it’s pretty damn close. It’s solid gold from start to finish. It has a story to tell, and a bitter message to deliver about the wholesale destruction of natural beauty in this world. The album drifts in and out of focus, like a waking dream, pulling you in with its atmosphere and subtle complexity.

Score: 10 out of 10