Bravely challenging, this is a haunting, exceptional record.
Where, exactly, did this come from?
Shearwater, previously a good band, a solid band, has jumped ahead and entered the realm of greatness. In the past, they were an artsy alt-country/folk/baroque pop group with twee tendencies. Now, they have embraced an icy darkness that suits them better than anything a past listener could have imagined. Reference points include, but are not limited to, Talk Talk, Joy Division, Joni Mitchell, and the most dispossessed Radiohead moments. This is a chilling release, epic in both reach and accomplishment.
Palo Santo starts with the sound of transmission, a faint humming signaling other planets, or the death dimension, or wartime messages through ancient radios. What matters with the static sound is what it heralds. It is the coming of words, of humans reaching out for someone else to hear their story. What the story is on Palo Santo is not altogether clear, but that is through no fault of the songwriter. Jonathan Meiburg, band leader, can truly be called a full-fledged artiste on this release. The lyrics are poetry (difficult sometimes) and the music reflects that. The songs and story seem to be about love, children, death, and war. There's searching everywhere and darkness abounds. "There's something singing in the ice / In the deepest part of the world" Meiburg sings on "White Waves" and dread filters on through in the music, white noise softly humming, a guitar being strummed, and a few piano notes hit before the band joins in. They're deliberate but ferocious and Meiburg's unique voice (part angelic boy choir, part John Lydon sneer) moves from fragile to overpowering. The end result is that the song sounds like the title - cold waves crashing down hard on a grey day.
There are so many beautiful moments, lyrically and musically, that it is hard not to succumb to writing a song-by-song synopsis of the record. "Nobody" is a delicate folk number, even sounding English countryside in origin until oft-kilter noises creep in two-thirds of the way through. The mood is lonely, and the words reflect that: "The iris dilates while the heart implodes / And when he comes, and he's raging / His mouth still denies what his heart just knows". That loneliness moves into terror territory on "Johnny Viola" with "If you could bang the world like a drum, it would only show / It was hollow inside". Meiburg moans, and the listener moans with him. The closer, "Going is Song", adds disturbing visuals - "Oh daddy, I'm lost in your overcoat / But I found my heart, I pulled it out by its root". The music, subdued or exploding, is a perfect complement. This is all very heavy in an unrelenting way. But the feeling taken away after one listen, or twenty, is the same. "Oh, play again that melody / Hidden close to me" ("Palo Santo").
Palo Santo is the sound of a band reaching, and then achieving. Sometimes bands stick with a familiar, loved sound. Sometimes they reach and fall short. Shearwater walked ten paces ahead, set up camp, and settled down to do it right. It must be a thrilling moment for the band, as it certainly is for the listener. This isn't a feel-good CD. It's haunting. It's tough. But in the end, it sounds like a tragedy finding the corners of dim light. What a gorgeous moment. Shearwater have not only made the record of their career, but one of the finest records to be released in recent memory.