Some musicians, when spending time away from touring or writing, are filmmakers or visual artists. Others are writers. Some teach classes, and some tend bar. But Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg, who holds a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in Geography, studies birds and remote human civilizations. Because of this, the natural world has infiltrated his work with increasing heaviness since the group’s beginnings, with images of birds appearing on album art, and imagery of natural struggles characterizing some of his most haunting work. The narratives on 2008’s Rook, detailing landscapes strewn with carcasses and beasts in captivity, were absolutely chilling, creating a world that was at times hopeful, frequently terrifying, but vividly told as if he had seen them firsthand.
Since releasing that graceful and powerful masterpiece, Meiburg has turned his eye toward a slightly different concept, namely the intimate and often isolated nature of life on remote islands. Having spent a year traveling to locales such as Tierra del Fuego in the Falklands, New Zealand’s Chatham Islands, and Baffin Island in Canada, Meiburg translates that experience into 11 unique and beautiful musical snapshots through the instrumental grandeur of bandmates Kimberly Burke, Thor Harris, Jordan Geiger and Kevin Schneider. The end result, The Golden Archipelago, is the band’s most ambitious work to date, sprawling and elaborate, but gorgeous. It feels like their biggest record, though interestingly enough, it’s far from their longest. In fact Rook, at only 40 minutes long, outpaces it by a few minutes.
Following the art-rock muse that made the John Cale and Talk Talk-inspired compositions on their last two albums such ambitious works of songwriting beauty, Shearwater inhabits these 11 islands with powerful arrangements made crisp and heavy through the production of John Congleton (Explosions in the Sky, Black Mountain, Baroness). After being teased with a distorted recording of group singers, likely recorded from one of Meiburg’s island visits, The Golden Archipelago starts off with “Meridian,” an understated but more direct opening than “On the Death of the Waters” or “La Dame et La Licorne.” A simple guitar strum gives way to dramatic, thundering piano chords and an ominously booming bass drum, paralleling Meiburg’s narration of a settlement under barrage of a bombing run: “I saw the first wave/ and the flares that fall/ like fireflies/ on the islands/ in the boom and swell.” It’s a stark but elegant opening, and a reminder of how spectacular this band can make a song out of reasonably understated elements.
Though its opening track is one of its most accessible, on the whole The Golden Archipelago is a bit more obtuse than the band’s past work. Every song is melodically captivating, but hooks aren’t the primary focus. In critical parlance, calling an album a “grower” tends to be a backhanded compliment, but in this instance it certainly applies, and to the band’s benefit. Songs like the ambient glow of “God Made Me” slowly unfold and warrant repeated listens in order to absorb the delicate and intricate presentation. Likewise, even some of the more uptempo songs, such as the meaty rumble of “Corridors” or the metallic shimmer of “Runners of the Sun” feel more like movements of a greater whole, yet they’re presented in typically striking fashion, standing out on the strength of their detailed and dramatic compositions.
In spite of its many atypically structured pieces, The Golden Archipelago nonetheless features many of Shearwater’s strongest and most accessible songs. The aforementioned “Meridian” is the first of a flawless run of four on the album’s first half, continuing with the heavier rocking “Black Eyes,” which oddly recalls a less synth-oriented Music for the Masses-era Depeche Mode. Over a sinisterly echoing piano hook, Meiburg once again paints a stark, if obtuse lyrical portrait of survival in isolation: “Come down from the iron wheel/ come back from the endless labor/ look down on the rolling waves/ that strike on the crumbling reef.” “Landscape at Speed,” meanwhile, has a more jazz-influenced rhythm, while single “The Hidden Lakes” is purely gorgeous, vaguely reminiscent of Kate Bush’s exquisite majesty. And closer “Missing Islands,” while the album’s shortest, is the album’s most haunting track, a perfectly stark and eerie conclusion.
The detail and care that went into The Golden Archipelago is something to behold, right down to the 74-page dossier lined with sepia photographs, maps, lyrics and tide schedules that the band compiled as a visual companion. It’s a visionary work that is alluring upon first listen, but even more intriguing with each subsequent spin. And like the geographical phenomenon to which the title alludes, these songs are sparse and fascinating when floating in isolation, yet truly come into focus as essential parts of a greater whole.
Video: “Hidden Lakes”
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.