Shearwater – The Golden Archipelago

January 01, 1970



The planet is in deep shit – if you don’t
believe the scientists or Al Gore, just listen to the omens coursing through
Shearwater’s latest release. The band’s third record for Matador, The Golden Archipelago, is a lush,
urgent portrait of island life based in part on leader Jonathan Meiburg’s
graduate student-travels as an ornithologist, and touching on themes as
far-ranging as the plight of aborigines to the nuclear test site Bikini Atoll.
(Meiburg and designer Mark Ohe assembled
a full-color, 75-page, 8 x 10.5-inch visual guide and companion piece to the
album – sold separately, and ingeniously funded via fan contributions through
the site – that was composed primarily of photographs and
documents Meiburg collected on his voyages.)


On 2008’s Rook, Meiburg captured the grace of
avian life in pastoral textures and melodies that soared like their subjects. The Golden Archipelago includes some of
those sonic elements in a shimmering set-piece like the Spirit of Eden-modal rocker “An
Insular Life,” or the ethereal closer “Missing Islands.”
this album’s atmosphere is denser, its angles sharper, its tempos more urgent,
and Meiburg’s vocals more pleading and desperate than ever. Even the gentle
piano-and-acoustic guitar opener “Meridian”
and sweet orchestral flourishes of “Runners of the Sun” find ominous
undercurrents running through their rhythms. The album’s tone is really set by
the portentous “Black Eyes,” whose pulverizing drumbeat refracts in percussive
piano lines, brash barre chords, and a Meiburg in full operatic voice warning
that “a forever life/is an infinite lie.” Yes, the clock is tick-tick-ticking
throughout this record, and on “Black Eyes” the relentless pulse creates a
precarious, storm-tossed drama to match the song’s subject matter: The ancient buried
Micronesian island city of Nan Madol.
It’s a safe bet those folks thought they’d last forever, too.


Those portents drift into everything here. The tribal polyrhythm
of “Landscape at Speed” uses eerie guitar feedback and minor chords-piano to
evoke the stubborn sense of distance and loss inherent in the song’s title, and
the repetitive nature of the circular glock-and-piano figures in “Hidden Lakes”
eventually read like an insistent alarm. Rousing crescendos arrive like
unexpected thunderbolts in both “God Made Me” and “Uniforms,” the first built
on guitar feedback and the latter on an explosion of clattering percussion. Meiburg
may overplay the urgency card – and rather egregiously, too – on the noisy “Corridors,” but it’s the only misstep here and easy
enough to overlook (and skip) because it still comes across as genuine.


Everything seems to come
together on the anthemic “Castaways,” however. Meiburg’s classically trained tenor remains Shearwater’s initial
draw, an instrument as adept at heartrending falsetto as it is dramatic
grandeur. Here, combined with Thor Harris’ thumping drumbeat and leavened
by guitar glissandos and sawed vibraphone chimes, Meiburg’s ominous walk-off
line — “You are running from
a rising tide” – is imbued with an after-the-fact nostalgia that is probably
the most frightening thing on the record, and a reminder of exactly what is at
stake. If
each song represents an island (which Meiburg says is the case here), and no
man exists alone as one, the message is urgent and obvious – though rarely is
it delivered this beautifully.


“An Insular Life” “Castaways” “Landscape at Speed” JOHN


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