Shearwater – The Dissolving Room

The Dissolving Room

Like going to bed on the first night of spring and waking up to find that you actually slept through summer, Shearwater write songs to inhabit the nightmare netherworld where ghosts take snapshots of each other and plead incessantly to not be evicted from the lowlands where they find peace. The result of a rapid collaboration between Kingfisher’s Jonathan Meiburg and Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, The Dissolving Room is a haunting, unsettling record of intense emotion and inescapable loss.
Intended to be an album cut out of the mold of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon (I’m so sick of referencing Nick Drake), Meiburg and Sheff wrote songs by exchanging e-mails and recruiting friends to fill out the sparse, acoustic-based sound that, in Sheff’s own words, is “both crushingly depressing and boring enough that you’ll fall asleep before you kill yourself.” Even so, there are more than a few lovely moments of melancholy. Meiburg’s falsetto croon and Neil Young-ish harmonica lines are the perfect partners for his pleas to sickly lovers in “Mulholland,” just as Sheff’s scratchy laments for a dying uncle in “Sung into the Street” present a appropriately stark beauty. As Meiburg’s vocals stretch to become almost otherworldly in a Thom Yorke kind of way (I’m even sicker of referencing Thom Yorke), with the solemn guitar strums and lonely violin of “If You Stay Sober,” the listener is absorbed in the quiet, timid yearning of his helpless characters.
Similar to Tom Waits, these characters are frequently the type of folks you’ve never seen, pray don’t exist, but know deep down inside are probably within a few miles of your house. One-eyed girls struggle to resist the allure of attending the church “clothed in browning leaves,” and suicide victims taunt and climb into bed with you. Frequent geographic references lend a feeling of transition, or more accurately drifting, from unpleasant situations into other, equally unpleasant situations. All the while, a bare bones ensemble of guitars, pianos, banjos, and harmonicas mix with the occasional cello and violin to present a musical package as cheery as an Appalachian murder ballad.
The gorgeously weary pedal steel of “Military Clothes,” a song seemingly about the trauma of heading to boot camp, has a decidedly Harvest-era Neil Young feel. Similarly, the burnt out coda “This Confiscated House” evokes images of Gram Parsons, proving these guys have done some studying under the masters. Still, the ragged harmonies and wind chimes of tracks like “The Left Side” are relatively unique in their obscurity and delicacy.
Overall, Shearwater display considerable strengths through their propensity towards exposing their vulnerabilities. While a few a songs do descend into apparent stream of consciousness morbidity, with the words seemingly crafted to fit the meter of the verses more than any cohesive concept, their vision is ultimately effectively communicated. Whether the contemplation of that vision will help lift you out of the ruts of displacement or just make you feel more at home in them is unknown. That you’ll be able to listen without at least feeling somewhat funereal, however, is unlikely.