Shearwater – The Golden Archipelago

To start off, this is more than just hippie music. Just had to throw that out there. Everybody knows that Shearwater’s music is very nature-oriented. Hell, look at any album cover of theirs and it becomes readily apparent. This one in particular, as you can see above, depicts a man in a canoe drifting towards a lush, green island eclipsing the sun’s golden reflection. If that’s not enough, look at the ones that came before it: a forest of pearl-white trees, an albatross, a cloaked man donned in a veritable jacket of crows. And don’t even get me started on the track names. “Hidden Lakes,” “The Snow Leopard,” “I Was a Cloud.” The lines “Gone from the house to the snows like a wandering light/ You send a last balloon/ To the solemn light of the moon’s eye” on “Hidden Lakes” are all you need to see to know that they’re still as earth-friendly as before. Hell, the band is named after a bird. Where they’re not leaving subtle hints, they’re displaying it bare and flamboyantly.

I’m here to tell you that that’s perfectly fine. A lot of people tend to disregard Shearwater and bands like them as one of “those types of bands” that make music as secondary to the message they’re trying to convey, that the tunes themselves are just some sort of causal carrier of a purpose rather than the purpose itself. I promise you, this album isn’t gonna try to get you to start buying organics. Rather, it’s little more than a glorification of the world of nature we all know and love. Not only that, it’s also one of the best albums the band has to offer.

The folks behind this project Shearwater are also members of the folk rock band Okkervil River, hence the band’s extensive use of clean guitar picking, piano, and other things that are so idiosyncratically “folky.” Despite the loss of co-founder Will Sheff, the band is just as strong as ever, and The Golden Archipelago is there to prove it, with melodies that are powerful and evocative, yet not a bit difficult to relate to.

The most critical flaw of this album lies in its peculiarly unimpressive opening and closing tracks. Opener “Meridian” carries the tender melodrama and minimalist instrumentation reminiscent of an Efterklang song, who we all know severely disappointed the world with their last outing Magic Chairs. While the song in itself is pretty touching, it’s not much incentive to carry on. Closer “Missing Islands” also suffers from the same issues, but without the creative instrumentation, sporting little more than a subtle piano melody and some simple strings. If you have patience, however, it will prove to be very entertaining throughout. Thankfully, I was more faithful than to pass off Shearwater as another one of “those indie rock bands” each taking their stab at Arcade Fire imitation.

The patient ones will find that the record quickly picks up. Vocalist Jonathan Meiburg lets loose his vocal skills in the following track “Black Eyes” with an almost Bowie-esque presence and depth. Instrumentally, the song is powerful and with the additional vocal and lyrical strength, it’s nothing short of moving, with lines like “And as the body dies/ What is left from the heart/ Burns white” carried by Meiburg’s evocative voice. Tracks “Castaways” and “God Made Me” are likewise moving, with forceful ascensions that are unparalleled by all except perhaps the crescendo masters Grizzly Bear.

Have no fear; the album’s not all soft nature ballads, either. “Corridors” charges full-force with explosive drums and urgent percussion and guitar. Meiburg shouts to the breaking point, his voice even carrying a little grit this time. And “Landscape at Speed,” though perhaps not nearly as energetic as “Corridors,” carries groovy drum work that’s enough to get one’s head bobbing back and forth.

Put simply, The Golden Archipelago is as humble and inoffensive as it is rich and intimate. If you’re open to the concept of being sung to about wilderness landscapes and birds, then you’re bound to enjoy this perfectly friendly record. And I promise it’s not going to bug you with switching to soy products and taking yoga classes any time soon.

Score: B

by Mason “Not a hippie” McGough

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