There exist phenomena in the world that can be viewed as both beautiful and terrifying. They exist in nature: the eerie glow of a flame as it engulfs a hillside; the chaotic dance of lava erupting from beneath the ground; the majestic presence of the giant shark that could halve a person with a snap of its jaws. Due to man’s inspiration and awe, they exist to more abstract degree in art: Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son”; F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu”; and in much more recent memory, Scott Walker’s The Drift provided a stunning, yet infinitely unsettling experience for those whose ears can sustain some truly chill-inducing sounds (guilty as charged).
On past albums, Austin’s Shearwater never came across as a terrifying band, though an element of fear is present in their work, if unconsciously. Frontman Jonathan Meiburg’s stage presence, which comes across intense and impassioned, is driven partially by stage fright. Yet on fifth album Rook, there’s a greater sense of dread and unease than ever before. One must merely peek at the cover for a hint of the beautifully unsettling ambiguity that lies therein. Birds (an ever-present icon in Shearwater’s discography) gather upon a human body, one with face obscured by his winged companions. It is unclear whether he is friend or foe, whether the birds have chosen him as victim, or whether they are at his command. It’s a striking image, and a gorgeous one, and yet it seems altogether frightening when one’s mind is left to interpret.
Beneath that mysterious image lies an album of immeasurable beauty and of allegorical terror. The spacious nature of 2006’s amazing Palo Santo has sprawled over into this epic, deceptively short affair, with melodies rarely straying from minor keys, and very few moments in which the band breaks into a straightforward rock song (“Century Eyes” is a notable exception). Likewise, the band’s penchant for Talk Talk-like abstraction has grown, and while some still find Jeff Buckley an apt comparison for Jonathan Meiburg’s powerful vocals, Buckley’s lyrics were rarely, if ever, tied to such nightmarish visions.
It’s telling that Rook begins with a shipwreck. First track “On The Death Of the Waters” opens with a similar delicateness to that of “La Dame Et La Licorne” from Palo Santo, yet with a much more grave narration: “As our spire pricks the world/ and a shudder deep is unheard/ would you feel it, oh my god, as the spindle flies apart?/ Turn your bow to the biggest wave/ but your angel’s on holiday/ and that wave rises slowly…and breaks.” The band creates an immense sonic wave of their own, crashing with soaring levels of volume and distortion, mimicking the physical devastation, yet with a powerful melodic beauty.
First single “Rooks” behaves only partially like a single. While it is certainly among the catchiest tracks, it feels more like a drive along a barren apocalyptic landscape than a road trip with any actual destination. Meiburg’s imagery only seems to reinforce this ideal, as he sings “When the rooks were laid in piles by the sides of the road/ crashing into the aerials, tangled in the laundry lines…the ambulance men said there’s nowhere to flee for your lives, so we’ll stay inside/and we’ll sleep until the world of man is paralyzed.” The song is so deeply affecting and so achingly gorgeous, I’m left paralyzed, myself, unsure whether to stand up and revel in its power or curl into a fetal position from fear.
The incredible “Leviathan, Bound” finds Meiburg describing the stillness of the moment in which a hunter makes his kill, over dulcimer, piano and stings only to climax with the chilling declaration “You are racing, you are racing…alone.” The seven-minute “Home Life” is one of the rare exceptions in which the song’s sonic mass is matched in length, offering a swelling, ominous and ascendant waltz. The shorter “Lost Boys” and “Century Eyes” follow, with the former playing a gentle and dreamy foil to the latter’s crunchy rock stomp and cries of “tear it off!” And much like personal favorite “Nobody” from Palo Santo, “I Was A Cloud” offers a gentle reprieve from the chaos, with Meiburg singing in falsetto alternating messages of “steady your wings, now, sparrow” and “fear for your life.”
“Sought Col” may initially give pause to the listener suspect of an instrumental track of ambient hum and metallic squeaks, but its ominous presence only seems to provide a great complement to the more melodic, yet lyrically disturbing songs. Its place is almost like one of the abstract interludes from Kid A or Amnesiac, which is given greater weight when one considers the melodic similarities between the next track, “The Snow Leopard,” and “Pyramid Song.” In this powerful, cathartic ascent of a song, Meiburg offers a long-awaited moment of hope: “Can this sullen child, as bound to the ox that I ride/ climb to the heart of the white wind, singing, high/ and blow through my frozen eyes?”
As the album comes to a close with the world’s end ballad “The Hunter’s Star,” the cycle of the ill-omened and the stunning comes to a hypnotic close. That the album lasts a mere 35 minutes is for the best, as it might be difficult to endure such an emotional toll for far longer. Still, every note and every word of those 35 minutes is so meticulously plucked, sung and crafted that it’s nearly flawless in its execution, but dark enough to haunt long after the music has stopped.
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.