The music of the Austin based group Shearwater excels in evolutionary manner. Over an eleven-year stretch, their vision continues to unfold into something deeper and more refined than before. With help from the New York Times and NPR, the group’s 2008 release earned them wider attention, as Rook was praised one of the year’s best albums. The sextet’s newest release, The Golden Archipelago, is no exception to the group’s genius.
In The Golden Archipelago (i.e. The Golden Islands), solemn and haunting music expresses wonder, bewilderment, and grief, towards some of the world’s most isolated and “on the edge” landscapes. Front man Jonathan Meiburg, who spent time in various islands as an ornithology grad student, uses his experience with biology and ecology as the main content of The Golden Archipelago. Themes of nature, wonder, and anguish, dominate as the group praises and laments nature through their signature sound. While not explicitly a concept album, the motif of man’s impact on nature and subsequent loss of identity lingers through nearly every track, compelling the listener to contemplate along with Meiburg.
Beginning the album is a recording of aborigine Bikinains chanting their struggle against globalization. According to The Golden Archipelago’s 52 page booklet, the Bikinains have been exiled to a nearby area, while their homeland is used as a testing ground for advancing weapons of war. Their plea translates to, “No longer can I stay it's true/ no longer can I live in peace and harmony/ no longer can I rest on my sleeping pillow/ because of my island and the life I once knew there.” Quickly after this chant, Meiburg delves into metaphor, comparing the echoes of crashing waves to the reverberation of memories from a former life.
At times, Meiburg’s lyrics seem less like 21st century song material, and more like naturalistic rhetoric from the Enlightenment era. In “God Made Me,” Meiburg seems to yearn with the outcast aborigines pleading, “we call back to the old familiar life… unchain me… I am life breathed in the radiant lie.” Then later in “Runners of the Earth,” the vastness of land and sea is explored further, ending with the line, “I learned a lie that power breeds/ regeneration.”
Finally, the singer takes on the persona of the outcast in singing lines in their native tongue, translated to mean, “The thought is overwhelming/ rendering me helpless and in great despair.”The whole of The Golden Archipelago swoons and strides in a seamless rhythm. String arrangements, piano, and malleted drums tie the album together perfectly, producing an almost dream-like quality. Excelling in educated lyrical content, backed by music that suits their endeavor, the whole of the album succeeds. Certainly, one will be led to agree with Matador Records’ declaration that “Shearwater’s The Golden Archipelago is the band’s most absorbing and accomplished work to date.”