Shearwater albums rarely begin at full steam, instead requiring the time and space for their molecules to achieve a kind of critical mass before the Big Bang. And the bang on “Highgate,” the first track on The Great Awakening, is arguably their biggest. One minute into the song is a blast of piano and distortion, a menacing blast of sound you might expect to hear on a Lingua Ignota song rather than one of indie rock’s most subtly captivating songwriters. But it’s effective: if the band’s first new album in six years seems a little resistant to, well, awaken, that attention-grabbing boom starkly says otherwise.
“Highgate” is a rare moment of pyrotechnics on an album of slow burns, a gorgeous turn toward more elegantly textural and patiently composed material after the ’80s-inspired immediacy and socio-political critique of 2016’s Jet Plane and Oxbow. Where that record was a set of pop songs gazing toward a future collapse, The Great Awakening comprises introspective meditations from a place of restoration. It’s not always soothing or gentle, calm or centered, but it’s less driven by an urgent sense of anxiety that it’s all about to tumble over the precipice. In many ways, it’s more wild and gnarled than its predecessor, but freer to roam in the untamed terrain as well, its horizons ever and remarkably unfolding.
The slow trudge of “No Reason” is a study in miniature of everything that makes Shearwater’s music fascinating and enchanting, its open spaces cascading with darkly gentle touches of shimmering sound, once again touching upon the fertile influence of late-era Talk Talk with moments of subtle dissonance and elements of blues and jazz. As Jonathan Meiburg sings, “There’s no reason to cry,” it’s just shy of being reassuring—there’s always a sinister underpinning to even their gentlest moments. Electronic pulses drive a highlight like “Xenarthran,” while “Laguna Seca” erupts in clanging industrial pulses, one of the nastier moments on a Shearwater album in recent memory, but executed with the same grace of a less bombastic piece. “Aqaba” is one of those, and the most exquisite moment on the record, a slow-moving dirge of mesmerizing, cinematic grace.
At times it feels as if Meiburg and company are exploring this territory along with us, the scenery revealing itself as they make the journey. “I love not knowing,” Meiburg recently said, and while he’s a skilled songwriter with a particular grasp of beautifully chilling moods and a kind of intangible, unknowable dread, he finds epiphanies in moments of surprise, whether subtle or more overt. It’s oddly comforting, a headphone record in the truest sense, where some of the greatest moments happen in the haze of unforeseen details and events. Though it may not always be Shearwater at their prettiest or most immediate, The Great Awakening feels like a vision realized through guiding oneself through the wilderness.
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.