Over their past two albums — Palo Santo and Rook — Shearwater have giving us a well-orchestrated, shimmering beauty. It’s often fragile, like the high falsetto of singer Jonathan Meiberg’s voice. Also, like Meiberg’s voice, their sound can erupt into rumbling power. On those last two albums, Shearwater would sneak up on you with their strength. They’d lilt along, steady on the wind until the last possible moment, and then whip up their own powerful storm.
Things are a little different on The Golden Archipelago. This album completes a triptych, started with those previous two records, that examines, among other things, human’s impact on nature. If that sounds lofty or preachy in theory, it is neither of those in practice. These are all dramatic yet subtle records, and this new one is no exception. What has changed is that balance between the calm beforehand and the storm itself. The Golden Archipelago puts the band’s power right up front, and the results are bracing. There’s still plenty of beauty here, but the entire record is imbued with an urgency that raises the tension throughout.
Even though opener “Meridian”, doesn’t erupt, it still seethes. They’re not waiting to get our attention. The upstroke of the guitar, the distant thunder of drums, even the taut whisper of Meiberg’s singing — it could all snap into noisy fits at any moment. That it doesn’t, that the band still employs restraint even as they build up a force of sound, makes this song the perfect introduction to the album. It leads quickly to the haunting, echoed piano that opened “Black Eyes”, where Meiberg’s voice comes on full-throated and howling. The band churns in behind him, and the interplay of the keys and the chugging of the rhythm section gives the song an affecting space.
The album needs this tension, if it’s to continue the road set by its predecessors, and if it’s to travel this new path laid out in front of it. The Golden Archipelago does not focus on paradise islands or escapism, as the title might imply. Instead, while there is a beauty captured here, this is an album of onslaughts. People are being intruded upon, even displaced by outsiders. The water is rising around the islands. Everything is closing in and there’s nowhere to go. And that claustrophobia informs every tight pluck of a string, every strike of a piano key.
Though perhaps no one deserves more credit for the sheer ambitious size of this record — and for the rumbling, sturdy heart of it — than drummer/multi-instrumentalist Thor Harris. That his name is Thor alone should make him a great, thundering drummer, but he lives up to his name and more here. From the spacious, tide-rolling tom work on the brilliant single “Castaways”, to the dramatic, sprinting march he sets to standout “Corridors”, Harris hitches this album on his back and pulls it forward. Even when the band reels it in a little, as they do on the build up on the expansive “Uniforms”, when Harris comes in with his crashing fills it doesn’t feel sprung on you, it feels inevitable.
With Thor in top form here, and the rest of the band building a thick, heady mix on strings and keys and guitars with him, they don’t so much make space for Meiberg’s vocal acrobatics — as they’ve done in the past — but instead give them a sturdy and affecting foundation on which to operate. That’s where the distinct strength of this album comes through. Listening to The Golden Archipelago, you’ll realize that the last three Shearwater albums really are all one big movement. This is both the dramatic climax and the cathartic denouement. There may be trouble all around, but there is a determined hope here, one the band has worked hard to get to. This album is also the culmination of the band’s steadily growing talents and popularity, which have been rising alongside each other and are now starting to dovetail. So while the beauty of this record will surprise no one who’s been paying any attention to these guys, it’s the immediacy here — that driving pulse — that might catch you off guard. And keep you listening.