Album Review: Shearwater – The Golden Archipelago

by Katherine

(Posted at

‘Wanderlust! Relentlessly craving/ Wanderlust! Peel off the layers/ until you get to the core…’

Björk had it. So did Jack Kerouac. Wanderlust has been driving artists to pack up their bags and embark on hedonistic, hitch-hiked, cross-country jaunts or to jump on boats and set off to sea for God knows how long. Think of Bon Iver, who retired from the bustling city of Raleigh, North Carolina into his father’s wood cabin in Wisconsin’s desolate Northwoods, in order to try and sift his way through heartbreak, rejection and illness – it’s no secret that a change of scenery is sometimes just the ticket to get the creative juices a-flowing.

Which leads us to Shearwater, aka Okkervil River members Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff – not content with being the darlings of the indie folk scene with Okkervil River’s particular brand of rollicking folk-rock, their side project Shearwater sees them orchestrating their indie-folk on altogether more abstract concepts – their 2008 release, ‘Rook’, saw Meiburg using the concept of birds and his own experience as an ornithologist as a medium to express his own loves and losses, and ‘The Golden Archipelago’ sees him return with more of the same landscaped grandeur – this time riffing on life on an isolated series of islands.

Their press release, shall we say, embellishes on this a little: ‘The Golden Archipelago” is the third album in a triptych of mindblowingly beautiful, dense and ambitious excursions about man’s impact on the natural world’ – even the use of the word ‘triptych’ has my radar piqued to indie-rock pretention.

So far, so bloody ambitious – it’s far too easy to dream up a hopelessly ambitious concept like Shearwater’s; sticking to it throughout the course of an album, however, is another issue– however, any qualms about Shearwater’s authenticity are immediately hushed within seconds of pressing play on ‘The Golden Archipelago’ – the album opens with a deliciously ramshackle snippet of exiled islanders singing Bikini Atoll’s national anthem – and if that doesn’t convince you of Shearwater’s conviction to their album’s central island concept, I don’t know what will. It’s hard to imagine Bon Iver, for example, inviting his fellow Wisconsinite woodchoppers to join him in a rousing rendition of ‘Skinny Love’.

This sweetly idiosyncratic opening soon melts into the stark beauty of ‘Meridian’, where tinkling piano chords gracefully graze the surface of Meiburg’s gently-undulating acoustic guitar like ripples in a lake. It’s all seems so delicate, so painfully ethereal that you’d be forgiven for thinking Shearwater are all baroque prettiness and no tune, until our daydream is interrupted by the storming pulpit-thump of ‘Black Eyes’, whose clanging guitars and walloping percussion mean that Shearwater even come dangerously close to – whisper it– rocking.

Shearwater utilise this quiet/loud dynamic to wondrous effect elsewhere in the album – ‘Hidden Lakes’s piano-driven sweetness is so delicate, so glassy, so ephemeral that it’s a shock to hear it fade into the menacing titanic of ‘Corridors’ which – under-towed by stabbing guitars and thundering pianos – seems to surf on it’s own surging crest before juddering to an abrupt halt.

‘Castaways’ is the album’s most unashamedly triumphant moment – it bounds joyfully in it’s own golden-tinted light, Meiburg’s whine – wallowing in a grey area where Anthony Hegarty and Spencer Krug’s voices divinely overlap- spits out lyrics so furiously empowering (‘You live again/ In the shuddering light!’) they could be used on campaign posters. There’s more of the same orchestral wonderfulness in ‘God Made Me’, where shimmering stratums of strings lace themselves effortlessly around Meiburg’s gentle whine in joyous, sun-dappled unison, until it is lost in the string-soaked swell.

In the context of the genre of indie-rock, ‘The Golden Archipelago’ is something of a misfit– there’s no roar-along choruses, no production sheen, no self-aware quirkiness, no primary colours, no brash guitars, no testosterone-charged ardencies – Shearwater don’t stoop to any of indie rock’s typical checkpoints. Even in it’s loudest moments ‘The Golden Archipelago’ has the reverential hush of a precious relic from times long gone. There’s something pre-worn and exhausted about Shearwater’s music – every chord tattered and frayed and encrusted with sea-salt. Perhaps ‘The Golden Archipelago’s sense of archaism is more of a reflection on the indie rock scene today rather than Shearwater’s own prowess – their scope is so wide, so hopelessly majestic that modern indie rock can’t help but pale in comparison.

God knows Shearwater won’t find themselves packing stadiums any time soon, but the few that will find this album will fall for its austere charms completely and utterly.