Two years ago Jonathan Meiburg released Rook under his project, Shearwater; it was an operatic endeavor, which came across forceful in moments, while resting quietly in others. His band returns with The Golden Archipelago, along with an abbreviated dossier, unless you opt to shell out the bucks for the completed dossier. An album such as this is not something to take lightly; it’s full of depth and precision, all of which successfully push the listener into the realm of masterpiece as created by Meiburg and associates.
“Meridian” is a tricky album opener, especially for those mindful of the band’s past releases, Rook in particular. Slowly the song builds upon the quietest strum of guitar matched perfectly with Jonathan’s falsetto. The tone is somewhat ominous, especially with echoing vocals in the background and the orchestral touches. You expect a crash of some sort, similar to that exhibited on the first track of Rook, but instead, the song sort of fizzles to an end suddenly. It pushes you into “Black Eyes,” which is perhaps the loudest of the tracks on this collection.
Once you arrive at “Landscape at Speed” you begin to arrive at core of the album. Consistent rim shots provide a hollow percussive element to barely audible strumming. Instead of focusing this number on the guitar work, Shearwater fills out the space with various snippets of noise. It’s the sort of restraint demonstrated in the work of fellow Austinites, Spoon; these sorts of approaches tend to keep listeners in a holding pattern of sorts, asking you to indulge yourself in the cinematic quality of the record.
However, songs like “God Made Me” are precisely what make everything Meiburg does relevant to the broader spectrum of music listeners. His strong vocal performance in front of string instruments begs you to hold onto every emotion within, only to release it during the semi-chorus that leaves his vocals feeling somewhat scratchy like his one-time bandmate from Okkervil River, Will Sheff. The barrage of banging pianos only heightens such a release, yet he manages to let you rest quietly as the song fades into thin air. Finally, he seems to have taken his songwriting as seriously as he’s taken the orchestration of his previous albums.
Those looking for an album constructed of singles and hits might not find such numbers here, at least not apparent to the naked ear, so to speak. “Castaways” has a pounding drum beat that illustrates that Shearwater is more than just a project of Meiburg. But, his vocals cresting and crashing warrant the song one of the most accessible on the album, though time spent with The Golden Archipelago finds all these songs as such.
Perhaps the best summation of this album is the second to last song, “Uniforms,” existing in a dense world brought on relative noise before kicking in with powerful vocals. Just as the vocals signal for bombast, they’re immediately pulled back in favor of a more gentle confrontation with the listener. At 2.5 minutes into the song, you’re greeted with the complete ensemble of the band smashing everything into a raucous moment, all before the song peters out. With that, you find yourself at the end of an album that seems to revel in the contrasting experiences of quite and loud; it’s a trick used by many in the past, yet never done in such an operatic manner as we find here on The Golden Archipelago.
Download: Shearwater – Castaways [MP3]