Saturday, February 27, 2010

A little boat in a big sea - Shearwater, The Golden Archipelago

If you can imagine vast and lonely seas, with mists laying upon them, lights from wars flashing over them and from the moon falling onto them, and lost boats sailing across them, looking for a haven somewhere from somewhere, everything silent and still, then you can imagine the world that Shearwater’s newly released The Golden Archipelago conjures up for you.

This Texan quintet, using mostly acoustic sounds to paint their fog-laden pictures, where pale greys and blues and silvers blend and melt into one another, create music that is seeping with atmosphere on this, their sixth album, and their first since their stunning Rook, released in 2008.

In some ways, and despite a track like ‘Corridors’, which pounds with muscle and vehemence, rapid drums and frenetic repeating keyboards, like Philip Glass with bad attitude, The Golden Archipelago is a mostly quiet, contemplative album, always giving you the feeling that its music is adrift, small and alone in an immense space, a space within which, somewhere, a home, a refuge, might lie, but the mists and fogs are too thick to find it.

Listen, for example, to the deep, majestic notes from the piano’s lower register in ‘Landscape at Speed’, as if the music is telling you, as you sail along across the waves, looking for a place to rest, how bottomless the ocean is beneath you.

Or to ‘Castaways’, with vocals that seem to float on the wind, where you can almost feel the salt blown onto your face as you listen to it, but where drums and keyboards seem to reverberate in an endless, empty expanse, and you wonder if anyone, or anything, other than you and the sea, is there.

The music here is always tinged with the colours of the sea, and always of a lonely sea. Its melodies flow like the sea, its rhythms heave and haul like the sea, its harmonies build and break like the sea. And as you travel its journey, looking you’re-not-quite-sure-where for you’re-not-quite-sure-what, you feel an odd mix of awe and terror at the vastness of the space in which you are lost.

Just as the music mixes these images of smallness with vastness, the words often mix images of the sea with images of war, and images of nature enraged and of nature at peace, of searching, of fleeing, and, of course, of drifting. You are travelling here in troubled times through troubled waters.

Shearwater create some beautiful sounds on this album, lush and rich with colour and texture. The frail falsetto of Jonathan Meiburg gives the music its feeling of vulnerability; the tinkle of the piano casts little shafts of light, restful or frightful, onto the surface of the music; coloured percussion, with mallets and marimbas and drums that seem to breath as much as to beat their rhythms, give the music shape and depth and turbulence; and guitars that, with their brilliantly ebbing and flowing strum, really do sound like they could have grown out of the sea, or the sea could have grown out of them.

But the Golden Archipelago here is a dream much more than a destination – elusive and illusory – and by the time we have come to the album’s closing ‘Missing Islands’, hard on the heels of the desolate and disillusioned ‘Uniforms’, a song that grows from a single long, dark, unshifting note into an enormous prayer for home, the hope of finding the haven has been abandoned, and we are journeying back to where we came from, still lonely, still lost, with the horrors of war now buried beneath us in the deep and slow pounding drumbeat of the ocean.

The Golden Archipelago paints a vast canvas, and it would be a shame to take out this bit or that bit and turn it into a single, which will, I know, undoubtedly happen. But if you can listen to this album as an album, then do – its sentences are beautiful and powerful, but ultimately it’s the paragraph that tells the real story, and that carries you away with it.

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