Shearwater – Everybody Makes Mistakes

Shearwater
Everybody Makes Mistakes

Even though the general consensus seems to indicate that John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, and Nirvana In Utero are the three most viscerally displaced albums in the rock canon, offering the most painfully honest appraisal of human frailty through laying bare the fractured personas and existential crises of their creators, I have to admit that when I heard Shearwater’s The Dissolving Room in the spring of 2001, I’d never heard anything quite so excruciatingly depressing. Will Sheff’s strained half-crying vocals and Jonathan Meiburg’s piercingly fragile falsetto were perfectly paired to a completely unforgiving acoustic starkness in the arrangements that echoed every devastating statement – whether they involved dying uncles gasping for last breaths or ghosts creeping under the door to hover over your bed. In short, if it hadn’t been so convincingly rendered and musically bracing, it would have been quite difficult to listen to.
Having since added Kim Burke and Thor Harris as full-time members to their gloomy carnival, Meiburg and Sheff take turns in creating a song cycle about wrong decisions and regrettable choices in the appropriately titled Everybody Makes Mistakes. As such, you would be right in guessing that the general mood of the album is about as cheery as a toothache, but this time around, the pain is more jagged and the medicine goes down all the more smoothly. In what amounts to nothing short of a giant leap forward in songcraft (all the more impressive when considering that their debut had relatively few shortcomings in its own right), these songs hurt more precisely, enlisting a wider arrange of textures, tempos, and moods in the creation of what may be rightly considered one of the strongest Americana releases of the year.
From the first striking piano chords of the opening “An Accident” and the humming organ of “Well Benjamin,” we see Meiburg and Sheff simultaneously come into their own as songwriters. Meiburg (now also a member of Okkervil River with Sheff) emerges as the more pristinely melodic of the two, using the subtleties of his piano playing and his marvelously expressive falsetto (equal parts Thom Yorke and Sigur Ros’ Jon Thor Birgisson) to turn out some of the most wonderfully weary melodies this side of Elliott Smith. Sheff takes his place as the songwriter more strongly rooted in traditional Americana, generally using more upbeat arrangements and complex narratives to reach the same desolate ends that Meiburg does. Over the course of the album, we have the distinct pleasure of hearing them coordinate their alternately diverging and converging muses.
As with their previous release, the ultimate strength resides in the understated nuances of their arrangements, only here there is so much more in the textural sonic stew that they’ve seemingly exchanged black and white for Technicolor. Little touches, such as the tiptoeing vibraphone of the heartbreakingly gorgeous “Soon” (one of Meiburg’s most evocative vocal lines) and the sighing strings of the meditative “Ice Covered Everything” help flesh out the more naked qualities in their songwriting. Similarly, Sheff’s droning murder ballad in “Wreck” and the grandly unassuming “Safeway” are completed with slight atmospheric touches that somehow give the tracks an even more extensive solemnity than derived from the lonely acoustic instruments on their debut.
All in all, for an album that seeks to catalogue a litany of mistakes, there isn’t an artistic misstep to be found anywhere among the album’s 12 tracks. Where the excessive morbidity of their last release could become a bit unsettling, they’ve added such addictively haunting melodies that they could simply wrap them around the names of Holocaust victims for 45 minutes and it would be difficult to turn away. Every track leads logically into the next and helps weave another strand into their lonely quilt. That Meiburg and Sheff have grown to complement each other so exceptionally well at this early stage is nothing short of astounding, certainly singling them out as one of the songwriting duos most likely to drop an irrefutable classic in the next few years. Overall, few albums in rock’s history have hurt so good.