Before I had a chance to listen to Shearwater’s third album, Palo Santo, I had read complaints about the absence of Will Sheff’s voice. I can understand the disappointment, seeing as how we at Treble are such big Okkervil River fans. And as Shearwater began as a collaboration between Sheff and songwriting partner Jonathan Meiburg, leaving the majority of singing and songwriting duties to one person can cause a dramatic shift in outcome. And when the listener happens to favor one songwriter over the other, that can make an even bigger impact on how you listen to the album. It would truly be a shame if anyone did go into this album thinking it’s a lesser effort because of Sheff’s vocal absence, however. It’s quite possibly the best Shearwater album yet.
Just to be clear, Sheff does play a variety of instruments on Palo Santo, but it is still largely Meiburg’s affair. As he wrote all of the songs and sings all of them, his presence is felt much more strongly. Clearly, his songwriting favors the dramatic and the stark, at times taking the band’s dark Americana toward Talk Talk or Radiohead-like levels of ambience and grandeur, while occasionally rocking harder than before. Suffice to say, Palo Santo bears little resemblance to any traditional folk album or even a standard pop album. Meiburg paints with a diverse palette that pulls from Brian Eno as much as it does from Dylan or Drake.
The Talk Talk influence becomes particularly prevalent on the opener, “La Dame et la Licorne,” beginning quietly and starkly, ultimately stretching and bursting into a piano-driven rock epic. Meanwhile, the combination of banjo and bizarre guitar effects yields the unlikely standout “Red Sea, Black Sea.” “White Waves” finds Meiburg at his most vocally heroic, belting operatically over a dirty, slinky groove, the distortion of the guitar beginning to swell like ocean waves near the end. Track five, the peppy “Seventy-four, Seventy-five” sounds like a modern update of John Cale’s solo work, particularly considering the vocal similarities between Cale and Meiburg. The song is marked by pounding piano and touches of trumpet, while building toward an intense, wordless bridge.
The quieter “Nobody” recalls a folky Antony and the Johnsons, Meiburg’s falsetto croon of “the iris dilates while the heart implodes” bearing a strong resemblance to Hegarty. Meiburg’s vocals are quite versatile throughout the record, as evident in the contrast between “Seventy-four, Seventy-five” and “Nobody,” and even when he does sound like other singers, it’s never an imitation—merely a parallel. Meiburg can certainly hold his own, and does even more so with his songwriting talent. One such moment of songwriting greatness occurs on “Johnny Viola,” in which Meiburg declares “if you could bang the world like the drum/it would only show it was hollow inside.” Followed with a return of his falsetto in the chorus and a faint moment of near silence, “Viola” is a sublime moment among many.
After Jonathan Meiburg took the reins, Shearwater has turned into something even greater than before. Though Sheff is a great songwriter in his own right, taking a step back in the writing process allowed the greater realization of a different vision, and as such, Palo Santo is an amazing and dramatic listen. Simpler and more emotional lyrically, while more complex and moody musically, this marks a new plateau for the band, a height that requires a bit more patience, but offers greater rewards.
Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden
John Cale – Fear
American Music Club – Mercury
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.