Review Summary: The first thoroughly enjoyable indie rock album of the year includes one of the year's best songs in general in "Snow Leopard" and consistently beautiful songwriting.
No one can deny that Shearwater has an infatuation with birds. Indeed, their band name is a species of bird, the background of their website features birds, they named an album Winged Life
, they put two birds on the cover of their Thieves
EP, and their latest album, Rook
, is also named after a species of bird. This bird metaphor works well as a descriptor of the band's sound, particularly vocalist Jonathan Meiburg's voice, as well as a descriptor of the band's history and growth. In broad context, the band's flight upwards puts Rook
at Shearwater's apogee, the final breakaway from being a side project of Meiburg's former band Okkervil River where he served as sideman to Will Sheff. For a long time, Shearwater simply inverted that formula, making Meiburg chief songwriter. Rook
marks the first album after Sheff's departure from Shearwater as well as Meiburg's departure from Okkervil River, just as the rook, in popular mythology, marks the coming of death or bad fortune. Luckily, in Shearwater's case, Rook
brings about nothing bad.
is an album led chiefly by the charisma of Jonathan Meiburg. His voice, as noted, soars like the shearwater, hardly using any effort to fly at most times. This effortless singing translates into the compositional aspects of the album, for the most part a calm ride that picks its moments of brilliant bombast and drama. Opener “On the Death of the Waters” juxtaposes these two styles brilliantly, with a huge climax of distorted guitars and horns in the middle of the song, bookended by a gorgeous piano ballad with Meiburg's vocals, sounding like Antony from Antony and the Johnsons. The song's chord progression, full of suspensions and anticipations in its softer sections but a rather simple two chord progression in its climax, is a display of fantastic songwriting. After having his ideas suppressed in Okkervil River, Shearwater's music is undoubtedly the buildup of many ideas rolled into one.
In terms of flow, both throughout the album and in each individual song, the band inverts the typical formula. The shorter songs are the most dramatic, such as the opener and “Century Eyes.” The longer songs, normally the epics and slow builders, are instead blankets of calm. While “Home Life” has a climax in its own right, it is hardly as dramatic as some of the other album's cuts, despite being the longest song on the album. From there, the album falls into a quiet lull from “I Was a Cloud” through “South Col.” Despite this lull in intensity, the album remains just as interesting due to the consistently fantastic songwriting. Even the ambient “South Col”, which by all means should be thrown away as filler by any other band, puts all its creaks and cracks in the right places, creating an atmosphere that artists dedicated to the genre of ambient cannot touch.
This perfect, placid calm enters right into “The Snow Leopard”, the album's best song by far and one of the best released all year. With a hearty “Hah!” just over a minute into the song, Meiburg calls his bandmates to life, as if shrugging off the blanket of placidity that covered his voice and music. Instantly, the song enters a more intense section that grows even louder throughout the song. Along with Meiburg's strongest vocal performance, the composition is by far the best, both striking and beautiful at the same time. While the dramatic nature of this song makes a fantastic closer, the band instead closes with “The Hunter's Star”, a return to the more subtle nature of most of the album, like a perfect lullaby.
While Meiburg's voice, charisma, and songwriting dominate this album, his backing band does a fantastic job of growing and falling, creating the dramatic effects he envisioned. A wash of guitars, a great mix between acoustic and electric bass, and a perfect amount of winds and strings provide his accompaniment, giving each song its own particular color. In the midst of the short dramas and the oceanic, lengthy calmer songs, the band contributes heavily to two perfectly crafted pop songs - “Rooks” and “Leviathan, Bound.” Both just around three minutes in length, they progress masterfully and will undoubtedly hook listeners into hearing the rest of the album.
As the first album after the complete split of Okkervil River and Shearwater, Rook
will mark a certain transition in the band's purpose and power. With an Okkervil River album coming in September, it will be interesting to see which band will fly higher. And in the case of Shearwater, will its bird begin to descend? Or is there another level higher to which it can fly? Indeed, the shearwater bird uses little effort to maintain its height, and instead glides, or shears. Thus far, the band has stayed true to its name.