Stunningly and articulately composed, backed by reams of research and a 50-page supplemental booklet, Shearwater’s The Golden Archipelago is the kind of album that makes other bands look lazy. The third part in a trilogy started with 2006’s Palo Santo, the musical element of a sociological examination, Golden Archipelago is also perfectly compelling on its own, a success both on intellectual and more visceral terms.
Originally formed by Okkervil River members Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff as an outlet for the band’s quieter sound, Shearwater spent a few years feeling like a less accomplished side project. It wasn’t until Sheff departed that the band became something more than an also-ran, giving Meiburg, a student of geography, birds, and isolated island societies, a chance to indulge all his obsessions. Shearwater shares a lot of things with Okkervil, namely a pure sense of lyrical and musical dexterity, a terrific ability to drastically shift dynamics and instrumentation while seamlessly linking songs. But Shearwater has become far more compositionally generous than Okkervil has ever been. While lyrically more oblique, their songs have learned to stretch further, less about quick shifts in volume and intensity than subtler changes in tone.
The figurehead for this resolutely moving ship, lead singer Jonathan Meiburg’s voice plays like a challenge, wailing ostentatiously, lapsing into weirdly elevated tones. Like Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis’s delivery, but with more strident insistence, it represents the kind of ballsy stylistic choice that sets the tone for what a band like Shearwater has come to represent.
Although not as resolutely intense as 2008’s Rook, Golden Archipelago is more complete, more mature, a full album which serves as a reminder of the capabilities of the form. Songs like “Black Eyes,” which toss in all kinds of instrumental and electronic elements amid key and tempo changes, and the more straightforward “God Made Me,” which builds in a more basic fashion, are further indicators of the band’s range. Overflowing with talent and ambition, Golden Archipelago is that rare kind of great album: tackling big ideas and attempting chancy things while delivering a product that feels flawlessly and decisively whole.