Led by vocalist/songwriter Jonathan Meiburg, Texas’ Shearwater have long been one of the most musically appealing and politically conscious indie rock bands of the 21st century. 2016’s Jet Plane and Oxbow was particularly multifarious, spirited, and mesmerizing, which is why it’s so disappointing that follow-up The Great Awakening isn’t. No matter how musically or thematic intentional its significantly prolonged lengths and barren arrangements are, the band’s newest collection is a mostly drawn-out slog. There are profound and engaging moments along the way, but its repetitiously vacant and slow majority makes it best suited as the soundtrack for a great slumber.
Regarding why it’s taken the better half of a decade for Shearwater to produce another studio work, Meiburg explains that he “felt hopeless” but “didn’t want to make hopeless music”. So, he spent the last few years traveling South America, working on a live adaptation of David Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”, starting a new band (Loma), and concentrating on a few other creative ventures. By 2020, he was ready to begin the next Shearwater LP to craft “a meditation on hope and hopelessness, and the freedoms to be found—or dreamed about—in isolation”.
Such subject matter is certainly timely and resonant. Fittingly, Shearwater also chose to replace the “rock gestures” of Jet Plane and Oxbow with “a soulful and immersive travelogue of grand atmospheres… decorated with field recordings from Meiburg’s travels”. Although this change-up positions The Great Awakening as a substantially different journey from its predecessor(s), that doesn’t mean it’s a tolerably absorbing one, too. On the contrary, its embodiment of solitary sounds and sentiments pushes the listener away so firmly that it’s easy to get frustrated and bored enough to leave halfway through.
Again, the collection houses some clear gems that allude to Shearwater’s typical greatness. Specifically, the opener “Highgate” is a lusciously brooding and dynamic composition in which Meiburg’s poignantly rich timbre paints over delicate piano chords, crashing percussion, morose strings, and other chaotically symphonic textures. As usual, his lyrics are lovingly poetic yet visceral as well, with a standout verse ending: “You lie down in the weeds / Sky ripping at the seams / You draw blood with the reins / Pulling out your jackknife / At lifelike figurines.”
Further on, “Xenarthran” centers around a sound collage that ingeniously combines nightmarish dissonance with beautiful catharsis. Afterward, “Laguna Seca” rides along tribal rhythms and low-end textures reminiscent of Björk’s “Human Behavior” or one of King Crimson’s more abstract mid-1970s montages. In every way, “Empty Orchestra” brings more energy and melody to the table—making it the superlative cut of The Great Awakening. Closer “Wind Is Love” evolves into a tasteful hodgepodge of gentle guitar strums, vivacious percussion, and uplifting ambiance.
That said, even these highlights could have more to them in terms of their pacing, arrangements, and individuality. They’re just distinguishing and attractive enough to work on their own, but they rely too much on overly similar textures and vibes. Sadly, this issue of identicalness is more egregious across the rest of the set, with several tracks—such as “No Reason”, “Everyone You Touch”, “Milkweed”, and “Detritivore”—being so samey and scant that even Meiburg’s singing exudes disinterest.
There are at least a handful of worthwhile inclusions here, and Shearwater’s overarching purpose is admirable. Regrettably, though, good intentions don’t necessarily equate to good execution. For the most part, The Great Awakening is a plodding creation whose occasionally fascinating nuances and continually astute insights are marred by persistent musical tedium and hollowness. Put another way, what it’s saying is inarguably deep, but how it says it is almost always insufferably dull.