Review Summary: Thought progression over the last week or so: This is pretty good. This is real good. This is excellent. This is fantastic.
The best way to describe Shearwater’s new album The Golden Archipelago
is by using an oxymoron. As contradictory a phrase that “small scale grandeur” might be, it seems incredibly apt when listening to the band. They craft music that feels very personal– in a wide open field. There are no soaring guitars, choruses or over the top crescendos, but there is something vast about the songs on this album. This album doesn’t feel as though it were crafted in a cathedral, but perhaps in a smaller church. Where everything is still warm, and the epic questions of life are still contemplated just as in a cathedral, but in a smaller scale. The cover, featuring a lone sailor in open water with but a small island in the distance, actually conveys the feelings of the album better then most artwork I have ever seen. At first the song writing might not show itself to be such an interesting exploration between the grandiose and the introverted, but given the appropriate time and space the album will begin to unfurl. Like the sailor on the front cover edging closer and closer to the island, each passing distance reveals some new feature not visible before.
The first few listens did not produce much in terms of interest. It was good, no doubt, but it seemed to lack anything that grabbed onto the listener and drew them into the world of the album. But then “Castaways” truly bloomed with its subtle beauty. Originally hiding its endearing vocal melody behind a reverberating of rollicking, cavernous drums. That’s when the contrast of the epic and the individual became obvious. Suddenly the crashing, epic climax of “God Made Me” felt just right following the abstract and noisy “Corridors”. “An Insular Life” made the perfect come down from the aforementioned highlight “Castaways”. Then it builds up once again for one last explosion on “Uniforms” becoming back down to earth with the gorgeously simple “Missing Islands” with its haunting piano work and subtle string accompaniment. The flow of The Golden Archipelago
is incredible, working as an entirely cohesive unit, forcing the listener to become familiar with the record before reaping its rewards.
Anybody who has heard Shearwater before– particularly on their last album, the solid Rooks– will not be surprised by the type of music found on The Golden Archipelago
. It’s the same brew of sparse, cinematic and poignant indie-rock, but in an improved package. Whereas Rooks dragged at points, this album is far more consistent as each song feeds off the other for an effect that rightfully bares the cliche: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The epic atmosphere allows a fluid energy to rush throughout the record that underscores even the quieter, more personal moments. The short song lengths (nothing exceeds the five minute mark here) help with the surprisingly quick pace. It adds a haunting air to certain moments, as when Meiburg croons “the shadow I love,” in his signature voice on the mournful “An Insular Life”. Everything about the make-up of the album flows smoothly and is the key ingredient in giving the haunting, melancholic, mysterious atmosphere to the album.
The Golden Archipelago
is an album that seems to come from nowhere to grab the listener. It all sounds rather harmless at first– pretty, elegant, well crafted, but lacking in depth. Subsequent listens begin to chisel away at this notion until the true worth of the album is uncovered. Not to dwell too much on comparison to Shearwater frontman Jonathan Meiburg’s old band Okkervil River
(because they don’t really sound alike), but both groups have one major aspect in common. Both have this intangible virtue of endearment. Whether it be in the music itself or the lyrics, there is just this simple x-factor that makes you want to go back to The Golden Archipelago
time after time. It’s the best thing I can say about this album really. When all is said and done I could talk about the craftsmanship, the lyrics, the production, the songwriting, but none of that really matters at all. The most important thing about this wonderful record is that it entrenches itself in the listeners mind. Not based on catchy hooks, or epic moments, or passages of rumbling ambiance, but by that intangible feeling of “yes, this is awesome.”