The bio sheet that came with the advance copy of Shearwater‘s latest opus The Golden Archipelago recommends that the reviewer listen to the new album “more than once.” Since the band’s last two efforts—2006’s Palo Santos and 2008’s Rook—were slow burners too, I fully understand that Shearwater’s meticulous blend of multi-instrumental arrangements and Jonathan Meiburg’s sweeping vocals may take time to fully unravel. But for me, the repeated listens here will come from pure enjoyment, and to decide which one of these acknowledged trilogy pieces should be considered as the band’s greatest moment.
The surprise here isn’t that The Golden Archipelago continues the greatness of Shearwater’s last two efforts, but that Meiburg has managed to deliver such wonderfully consistent splendor in a relatively short amount of time. At each turn of these past five years, he seems to have spearheaded albums of such impressive scope that one couldn’t help but wonder, “How will he be able to top this?”
The Golden Archipelago provides some clues as to Meiburg’s inspiration. They are vast recollections of real travels—the kind where Indiana Jones would return to his university gig to tell great stories of his exploits to the students. But in Meiburg’s case, the travels aren’t forged from a fictitious screenplay, and the observations he creates songs from are about our painful realities. We’re killing the planet we inhabit, plain and simple, and if that isn’t something that makes your heart ache a little bit, then you will find little empathy for what Shearwater is undertaking with their latest release.
The imagery of islands is a recurring theme, and Meiburg’s own research visits to the South Pacific have played a vital part of the creation of Archipelago. The island itself is an important metaphor, for they will be the first to face the wrath of our deepening seas. “You are running from the rising tides,” he sings in “Castaways,” knowing that it is a matter of time before we realize that we’re all part of an island in many ways, so how can we continue to ignore a plight that will eventually impact us all? By “Runners Of The Sun,” he’s even more blunt, prophetically warning that we’re all “just a mark laid on the map lines/to drown in the ocean’s rise / or burn in a heat wave.” Meiburg finds an uncanny ability to avoid seeming preachy. For one, his remarkable talent as an emotive vocalist replaces righteousness with a haunting clarion.
In witnessing the fragility of nature and our eroding cultures, The Golden Archipelago brings to its listeners a lofty goal of using an album to promote a wide-reaching premise. And while it may not work as well as, say Radiohead‘s Kid A or Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut in terms of start-to-finish eloquence, one certainly must admire that a band like Shearwater still feels the urge to use a diminishing format like an album to voice Meiburg’s take on the state of our planet.
It’s also less melodic than Shearwater’s previous two, which will make finding a sympathetic ear even more difficult given our tendency to view albums with this level of compassion with the proper respect it ultimately wants to have.
The good news for Shearwater is how The Golden Archipelago rings so close to Meiburg’s heart that he’s beginning to move away from his previous musical worships and develop his own formula for emulation. In short, by trying to find a voice for Earth’s crumbling magnificence, Meiburg has finally begun to find his own.
Video: Shearwater – “Hidden Lakes”