Shearwater’s critically acclaimed 2006 release, Palo Santo, was a work of such startling beauty, garnering near-universal praise, that when the band signed to Matador, the record was rereleased as a two-disc expanded-edition package in 2007. This, too, was well-received, leading to building anticipation and incredibly high expectations for its follow-up. How would it compare? Could it possibly match the majesty of its predecessor?
The press materials Matador sent out with Rook include a “bio” file, which is not a factual history of the band and its members, but rather a short story titled “The Language of Birds”, about a singer whose voice was so beautiful that he could sing the songs of every bird, and at night he dreamt of a great black bird bursting from his throat to fly out into the darkness. It’s a story pregnant with symbolism from around the world. The language of birds is believed to be a mystical, mythical, or magical form of communication. Bird song may hold the secrets of alchemy and the code of the Tarot. It is purported to be the secret speech of the Troubadours, and the idiom of angels.
One listen to Shearwater’s Rook, and it might convince you that those last two must be true. The band’s fifth full-length, produced by front man Jonathan Meiburg, Rook not only meets, it far surpasses the high water mark set by previous releases. Harp, hammer dulcimer, and a host of other interesting instruments join brass, strings, and woodwinds to complement Shearwater’s already multifarious musical core. Each instrument’s voice is a character playing its role in this tale. Every lyric and vocalization is orchestrated not just for the meaning it expresses, but also for what the sound of it communicates. Likewise, the striking cover and inlay artwork (by Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick) conveys a sense of disquieting and precarious balance, contributing to the emotional effect of the project as a whole. Each element is employed to advance themes touching on environmental devastation, spiritual disconnection, and physical isolation.
Even the short story—which few will ever read because it isn’t included in the liner notes for the CD—is part of the concept. In it, the singer’s dark dream was eventually realized when, during his greatest performance, the sound of “a feasting of beaks” issued forth, decimating the landscape and destroying all life for centuries to come. Darkness can rise out of great beauty. Unconscious creation can cause dire destruction. It’s allegory for an apocalypse, and Rook is its aural equivalent, a fairy tale phantasmagoria of birds and beasts increasing and interchanging, diminishing and dissolving in the flicker of the firelight. But, like any good fable, there are lessons to be learned, and a chance disaster can be averted. The album is at once a cautionary tale and a celebration of hope.
“On the Death of the Waters” begins on the open sea, staring up at the stars from the balcony over the prow of a ship. Pieces of well-known children’s tales are woven into the narrative across several tracks, and here we are reminded of The Sleeping Beauty:
As our spire pricks the world
And a shudder deep is unheard
Would you feel it, oh my god
As the spindle flies apart?
Turn your bow to the biggest wave
But your angel’s on holiday
And that wave rises slowly
The full band then comes crashing in like the waves of which Meiburg sings—a formidable force tumbling and turning, a storm surge of swelling crescendo and rapidly descending notes until, abruptly, only the lone piano is left. Calm has returned, but the listener senses something still lurks beneath the surface.
“Rooks”, though not quite a title track, embodies the trepidation, tension, and stately splendor that Rook expands. A chilling cyclical guitar phrase forms the melody, backed by an pounding rhythm and accented with a hauntingly gorgeous trumpet line, as Meiburg’s unwavering falsetto recounts a nightmarish vision of class-wide extinction that remains both compelling and captivating. Similarly “Leviathan, Bound” commands equal attention, musically (some of the aforementioned interesting instrumentation is accentuated on this track) and lyrically as well. The lone hunter and the hunted alone become one as cries mingle and hearts merge. Meanwhile, the song races on, propelled by its insistent, but drumless, rhythm.
“Home Life”, is an entrancing piece that fleetingly returns to the fairy tale motif. More bits from classics appear in seemingly random places: “It is a beautiful night / To be born to this life / And grind his every bone / To / Powder”. Many of the lyrics proceed like a bedtime story made up on the spot, one in which the person to whom the tale is told becomes a central character. The arrangement evokes the feeling of marching through the landscapes of these stories, and perhaps, also of time ticking away as each scene slips by. The entire effect is of a half-forgotten memory pulled from the depths of the collective consciousness:
Do you remember, do you remember?
She carried you down to the edge of the dark river
And said though the water is wide you will never grow tired.
You are bound to your life like a mother and child
You will cling to your life like a succoring vine, like the rest of your kind
You will increase and increase…past all of our dreaming
“Lost Boys” starts out as a strange and lovely little lullaby, with Meiburg’s voice soaring as he sings of being starlight and flying above the world. It builds to a dramatic pitch, in which the titular boys are revealed as rather savage. Not pinpricks of starlight, indeed. “Century Eyes” is a sudden burst of rock, with sharp, slashing guitars and long, low wails of feedback bound in by Thor Harris’s thunderous beats against Meiburg’s frantic cry of “Tally Ho”. This clarion call demands, “Look with century eyes / Don’t it make you go blind … With our backs to the arch on the wreck of our kind / We will stare straight ahead for the rest of our lives”. Does this mean that because we refuse to consider the past, we are unable to learn from our mistakes? Or does it mean that in our headlong rush toward a future, which we perceive as bigger and better, we are oblivious to all that is occurring around us at the present moment? Shearwater seems to be saying a bit of both. Are we really so unaware of our impact? If we truly were capable of seeing the big picture, we wouldn’t make so many selfish choices, surely. Maybe the moral of this story is that a blind quest for more will always leave us with less.
“I Was a Cloud” invokes the bucolic, comforting calm implied by its name. It floats and drifts through its soundscape of acoustic guitars, piano and clarinet, referencing earlier themes and symbolically repeating variations on the lilting refrain of “I remember her / Steady your course now, sparrow”. Given that both the band’s moniker and the album title are names of birds, it is safe to assume Meiburg mentions the sparrow for a reason. This particular passerine symbolizes freedom. Biblically, sparrows also signify God’s concern for even the most insignificant of all living things. This song restates Rook‘s theme of hope, believing there’s a guiding hand behind every event, a principle in every parable.
“South Col” is an instrumental experiment consisting of eerily echoing effects, which seem to mimic other sounds; these might be the songs of sea creatures, or bird calls, or the sound of straining timbers as a ship weathers the shoals. Or it might simply be an interlude linking hope to action (“North Col”, a bonus track which will be available on the vinyl edition of Rook, is presumably a companion piece.).
If there had to be only one standout song on this record, “The Snow Leopard” might be the one. It is a somber, stunning summation, a meditation on transcendence. Lyrically following the silent footsteps of the elusive snow leopard after rising over the forests to fly thousands of miles on the wings of the rook, diving with the great leviathan to discover the depths, “The Snow Leopard” wonders, “Can the sullen child / As bound as the ox that I ride / Climb to the heart of the white wren singing high / And through my frozen eyes?” It’s a good question. How do we free ourselves from unconsciousness? Is it possible to rise above our egos and destructive impulses? How do we ward off the monsters we’ve created? Can we still believe in fairy tales?
Rook‘s last track, “The Hunter’s Star”, is another sort of lullaby, reprising images from the beginning of the album and recalling a time before this story began. When “No gull remains / To repeat its call”, sings Meiburg, “Only now would you long for the ancient bows / The moon overlapping the long white clouds”. It’s an extraordinarily affecting epilogue; it’s a ship sailing into the sunset, “On the waves that close on a world that will never return again”.
Shearwater has magnificently outdone itself. Not only is Rook destined to be named one of 2008’s favorites, but it could be one of the best albums for years to come. Sure, some of the subject matter is dark, but great beauty can arise from darkness, and Rook is among the most achingly beautiful things ever recorded. How’s that for happily ever after?