It’s been suggested—by fans, detractors, even by the band’s founder—that Shearwater and whatever we call underground/indie/whatever-rock in this part of the century are not an obvious fit. And that’s true. So much of what we hear these days (the lousy stuff, anyway) is willfully insular; Jonathan Meiburg’s songs, by contrast, have constantly tackled bigger questions and been propelled by massive musical ambitions.
We’re in an era in which minimalism and lower-than-low-tech have come in vogue. By contrast, Shearwater’s recordings—the epic “Island Arc” trilogy of Palo Santo, Rook and The Golden Archipelago in particular—have been expansive (some might say bombastic) in a fashion like none of their contemporaries. Meiburg—presumably unfamiliar with the adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”—has opted to ditch an approach that paid huge artistic dividends over his last three Matador albums for a record that seems shockingly direct, immediate and intensely personal. He’s no stranger to lush, crafted recordings, but this one sounds like no prior Shearwater incarnation. And please, don’t mistake that for a suggestion this is anyone’s notion of a traditional, singer-songwriter album. “Immaculate” and “Breaking the Yearlings” are inventive and confident in a manner that would humble most new artists, let alone Shearwater’s few veteran peers. “Insolence” is (take your pick) an unsparing bit of self-reflection or an evisceration of someone else; either way, the song covers a staggering amount of sonic territory in the space of six minutes plus. No disrespect whatsoever is intended to Meiburg’s sometimes-Austin neighbors Spoon when I call “Believing Makes It Easy” a song that would rank amongst that band’s finest had they come up with it instead.
Though it’s possibly a wild projection to claim a few years of bouncing through various band lineups, record labels and places of residence have led to a radical reboot, I’m a big believer in citing circumstantial evidence and letting the jury figure it out for themselves. Someone’s bound to label this Shearwater’s transitional album, but to these ears, it sounds like a thrilling artistic rebirth. Just give ’em the fucking Grammy already!
—Gerard Cosloy, Austin, TX (November 2011)