In the six years since that last Shearwater album, Jonathan Meiburg published a novel, formed a new band with members of the band that had opened for them on their last tour called Loma then recorded and released two albums, played and recorded adaptations of David Bowie’s Lodger album, eventually performing the trio of Berlin-recorded albums, then adapted to the pandemic shutdown with an EP of instrumental ambient music called Quarantine Music Vols. 1 – 8. While the 2016 release, Jet Plane and Oxbow, moved the band closer to modern rock song structures on tracks with a more political protest vibe, here on Shearwater’s 10th studio album, Meiburg has returned this decidedly art rock collective toward its more experimental roots, for the most part eschewing traditional pop song mechanics.
“Highgate” opens the album on this somber note, “Here comes your heart attack/Starless and Bible black/And here is the endgame.” Beyond the decidedly open-ended poetic expressions, and the nod to the King Crimson song “Starless and Bible Black,” Meiburg’s is close and intimate, like a folk singer, patient and at ease with the song’s quiet ambiance until a loud dissonant gong appears to represent the invasive “lightning” of the lyric. “No Reason” follows, again a somber rhythmic snare establishes the slow movement, and Meiburg’s voice floats gently over the gentle piano, and occasional strings that provide dramatic accents juxtaposed with his eerie falsetto haunts the upper registers. There is a slow building here, musically, but the tone maintains a moody presence that’s slow to move, requiring the listener’s patience.
The first single, “Xenarthran,” gets it’s name from a group of placental mammals dwelling mostly in South America, made up of 31 living species of tree sloths, anteaters, and armadillos. The song’s lyrics address deceptions of the mind and body, hovering poetically around the movement of time “while the night/circles around the day.” Again, a steady snare sets the gentle beat, while single synth tones ring out, and as with “No Reason,” there’s a slow, patient, musical building. Meiburg’s liner notes suggest that the roaring sound near the end of the track is a field recording he captured, a “chorus of howler monkeys I recorded in Guyana.” Other nature sounds appear here and there, like the sound of a gentle running stream at the beginning of “Milkweed,” and elsewhere. These are ambient instrumentals with Meiburg’s gentle singing of his evocative, poetic lyrics combined to allow artful interpretation by the hearers.
“Everyone You Touch” starts off as a traditional folk song, finger-picked acoustic guitars, Meiburg’s gently sung lyrics and piano, with a swell of orchestrated strings; it’s the closest thing to a traditional song format on the front half of the album’s 11 tracks. Similarly, “Empty Orchestra,” expands to a bigger electronic pop rock format, with sweeping synths and Meiburg’s voice expressive and rich, echoing the likes of Bryan Ferry. Then things return to the gentle, nature focused, art-rock inclinations of the band’s earlier efforts, on a trio of moody, ambient sounding tracks, “Milkweed,” “Detritivore,” and “Aqaba,” all displaying Meiburg and producer Dan Duszynski earthy blend of poetry, music, and nature. The soothing quality in the music’s gentle, healing tones, is further expressed in the album’s two closing selections, “There Goes the Sun’ and “Wind Is Love,” an embodiment of Meiburg’s mission statement that even in seemingly hopeless times, he wanted to make hopeful music. Together with his musical collaborators, Shearwater has embraced an expansive sound, and delivered a spirited musical expression celebrating the earth’s creative inclination toward regeneration and life.
“Xenarthran” / “Wind Is Love” / “Empty Orchestra”
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