A harmonious union between grandiose overstatement and hushed intimacy...
Janne Oinonen
10:32 16th February 2010

Songwriter and band chief Jonathan Mehburg has simplified his schedule since we last heard from Shearwater. Having put in active service in fellow Texan alt-rockers Okkervil River since 2008, Mehburg’s attention is now focused solely on what used to be perceived as his “hobby band”.

In some ways, especially in comparison to 2008’s superb, moody masterpiece ‘Rook’ (surely one of the most underappreciated albums of recent years), ‘The Golden Archipelago’ – the five-piece’s third album - carries a whiff of the uncertainty that often accompanies a major change or a bold departure from the most obvious plan. On a few less than successful tracks you can almost hear the hesitation set in as the band contemplate all the extra time they now have on their hands, trying to figure out how to best put it to use. Shearwater’s trademark mournfulness is here accompanied by some occasionally unbecoming defiance. The outcome is a couple of songs that try too hard and wound up exaggerating Shearwater’s extremes, first unveiled to devastating effect on ‘Rook’; one or two of the slowies are so hushed they risk evaporating altogether, whilst some of the noisier outings – particularly first single ‘Castaways’ – enter an unflattering territory occupied by chest-beating bravado and manly hollering.

For the most part, however, ‘The Golden Archipelago’ forms another compelling chapter in the story of one of the most compelling and refreshingly comparison-proof outfits currently in circulation. This is unapologetically Big music, fuelled by grand themes (this time, life on islands and man’s harmful impact on nature), genuine passion and sincere emotion. Not necessarily one for the cool points chasers, then, but the combination of Jonathan Meiburg’s yearning, earnest vocals, minor-key dwelling songs and rich arrangements that somehow allow the five-piece to strike a harmonious union between grandiose overstatement and hushed intimacy remains a knockout, even if the lofty levels of ‘Rook’ aren’t quite reached.

Singling out highlights is a futile exercise (although the restless pulse of ‘Landscape at Speed’, infectiously breezy mope-pop of ‘Runners of the Sun’ and melancholy drift of ‘An Insular Life’ demand an extra mention) – ‘The Golden Archipelago’ is one of those old-fashioned, unfashionably sincere albums that needs – and deserves – to be listened to as a whole. Alongside Midlake’s beautiful ‘The Courage of Others’, it also makes a compelling case for more bands and artists to trek deeper into the woods – or waterways – in search of inspiration.