Jonathan Meiburg’s departure from Okkervil River to devote himself to side project Shearwater should come as no surprise considering Shearwater’s recent switch to Matador and the band’s flurry of recording and touring. Where Shearwater’s previous releases remained in the shadow of Okkervil, Rook crawls out from under their wing and takes flight on its own.
Rook is a difficult bird to classify. Its insistent pianos and strong basslines are reminiscent of the National’s impeccable Boxer, but Meiburg’s gravelly falsetto and the songs’ startling tempo changes bring to mind a more accessible, more organic Xiu Xiu. Yet the folksy Americana stylings of earlier Shearwater records and the driving experimental rock of Okkervil River are still evident. Diverse instrumentation and intermittent guitar hooks are anchored firmly by rhythmic piano and unusual percussion, intricately balanced with Meiburg’s soaring vocals. Tempo, volume (yes, volume changes! In a recording! Imagine that!) and key changes are central to the album, with songs building from quiet piano to a roar of strings, or from modest fingerpicking to the blare of trumpets over a persistent military snare.
The structure of Rook also reflects this bipolarity: the thick, fuzzy guitars and jangly high piano of the single-worthy “Century Eyes” immediately collapse into the hesitant “I Was a Cloud,” which fades into the ear-piercing, nearly tuneless feedback of “South Col” before pulling back together for “The Snow Leopard,” another balanced rock song driven by blocky Radiohead-style piano and bass. The album weaves together accessible rock with unpredictable noise, haunting bells, downright creepy strings and piano, blending dour elegies and ominous, insistent marches with unexpected moments of delicate and ghostlike restraint.
Despite its musical accomplishments, however, Rook is not a particularly easy album to listen to. It’s dense and fairly inaccessible, the sort of record that requires a commitment and which might seem easy to dismiss as run-of-the-mill art-rock at first. This isn’t the kind of record you pull a few tracks from to add to your iPod shuffle; it’s the sort of album you want to take off the shelf once every few months and listen to straight through, possibly multiple times. This is, by far, the album’s greatest strength: a uniform, single body of work, another valiant attempt to preserve a seemingly dated (and perhaps too oft-mourned) art form.
Despite the fact that nearly every song includes at least one marked tempo, volume or key change, Rook is surprisingly coherent, and its mood swings underscore rather than undermine the unity. Melodies and motifs seem to surface and reappear, linking eerie anxiety with elusive intentionality. While Shearwater has always been album-oriented (they’ve been known in the past, like Okkervil River, for their themed albums) Rook is by far their most successful to date. It is clearly the product of artists who have been working together for over a decade with common goals, and recombines their previous influences and accomplishments with a maturity, deliberation, confidence and sadness previously unheard.