When it was announced that Jonathan Meiburg would be leaving Okkervil River to solely focus on Shearwater, surely, we knew that such a focus would only improve the latter’s sound. While we still await the former’s first album without him, there is no denying the pure quality Meiburg brought into the recording studio. A skilled pianist, a crafty songwriter and his distinctive voice are just a few of the aspects that make him worthy to have his own band to lead, on his own.
The only differentiation is that many anticipated whatever Shearwater recorded in following support of Rook would be something far more testing and demanding. And while The Golden Archipelago doesn’t tread any new water, like the single survivor on his boat, there is a searching towards new frontiers. It’s not as if Meiburg would exclusively dump what got him this far and for us that should have never been expected. Instead, they lightly shift their sounds into something larger and even if it’s very assertively – another terrific release – this isn’t the exhilarating tour de force some projected.
Don’t be dejected because the ideas that find the light are brightly burning with gifted skill. There happens to be a determined effort on stronger song cycles that carry a different amount of substance. Rather than focusing on growing a full-bodied six minutes of ravaging music, only two songs on The Golden Archipelago pass the four-minute mark. Formerly, you’d envision a samba paced song like “An Insular Life” to grow into a meaty, strong-armed force but here, Meiburg and Co. allow for the strings to bring it to a lifting end, well after they’d taken the drum’s pattern to a heavenly new place.
But the best is surely yet to come because even where the concept is burgeoning for escape, everything is firmly kept under control. The opening sound of natives is felt throughout an album that is all about finding new passions, exploring new depths and even, turning your back on the predictable. Much of their past indulgences are found in new forms, whether it’s a slower take or the introduction of a pedal guitar, each calculated decision is the work of a band coming onto their own.
There’s even a call to arms with the trumpets low blow on “Black Eyes,” and even though it’s a strong presence, the star of the show is Meiburg’s clamoring piano line. Always a force to be reckoned with, the drum’s showcase a searing amount of tenacity in support of the stomping horns. The message is clear: the inauguration is now and nothing will be left to waste. Even better, “Uniforms” is like something out of Schubert’s book. Its mysterious opening caters a secured Meiburg, softly singing his tale of being a new man. The rolling strings come off as the garrulous sounds of waves, gentle at first; they explode with the call of the drums. And these aren’t just ordinary drums but rather, they sound like their being bellowed from the bottom of a cave: thunderous and fiercely dashing.
On Rook it was “South Col”’s broken down chords that either cracked the album in half for some or made it that much more compelling for others; on here it’s the intensely chaotic display of “Corridors.” Only this time, the change of pace is located at the center of the album and it’s a stark contrast to its follower, the earnest reflection of “God Made Me.” But such chances should and will be provided because on the horizon is the brimming sun, shining above a new land. Regardless of where Shearwater goes from here, The Golden Archipelago is yet another excellent reason for all of us to be watching; they haven’t lead us astray yet.
“Black Eyes” by Shearwater