2006’s Palo Santo was a raw affair, a concept album conceived by the band as they struggled to find their footing after Will Sheff’s exodus. While it featured what I believe to be the band’s strongest and most consistent lyrics, the sonic texture of the album was extremely uneven between the ambitious arrangements of the five standout tracks (1, 2, 5, 8, 10) and the slower songs like Failed Queen and Nobody. This disparity was made more acute with the release of the deluxe edition in 2007, which featured vastly improved recordings of the five standout tracks.
I’ll stand by Palo Santo; it’s still my favourite, though it’s a flawed record. When I write stories I find they typically reflect the sentiments and emotional timbre of the music I’m most attached to at the moment. I wrote a series of short fictional “dreams” based on seven different faces of the Tarot, though as the writing progressed it became increasingly clear that Shearwater provided most of the inspiration for the work.
I came to Shearwater through their 2008 release Rook. Where Palo Santo was rough and course, Rook was as smooth as glass. I can’t name a single weak song on the album: each one is well-constructed and minutely refined, like a delicate piece of stained glass or an ice sculpture. The whole album swoops, flutters, dives, much like its namesake.
And while I found Rook to be technically satisfying, breathtaking, I couldn’t help but find the textured sound of Palo Santo more compelling. I’ll freely admit that Rook is the “better” album, but Palo Santo got under my skin in a thousand different ways, and each time I listened through I found something new, some lyrical hook or link I hadn’t found before.
So far I don’t know what to make of The Golden Archipelago. I do know that, from listening through it dozens of times, the album manages to hone the band’s sound. The raw energy of Palo Santo meets the careful construction of Rook. The sonic landscape of the album is entirely new as well. Palo Santo sounded like an undercover transmission from across enemy lines in some war-torn wasteland, replete with an unsettling feedback interference that pervaded every track. The album is uncomfortable in every respect. Rook took me north to a landscape of craggy glaciers and moonlit wastes. The waterphone “South Col” impresses the image of a graveyard of wrecked ships captured in the ice, the wind scratching across their hollow shells. Take a look at Kahn & Selesnick’s most recent project, Eisbergfriestadt (from which the cover image was taken) and you’ll get a clearer sense of the sonic landscape Shearwater are building.
The Golden Archipelago journeys south to the Pacific. The album hits you like the swelling of some huge wave: the sea, the storms and the tide create the heartbeat of the album, which is warm where Rook was cold, welcoming where Palo Santo was alienating. Like Rook, The Golden Archipelago is all about the narrative and emotion, less about the strength of the individual songs, though each song possesses a singular and unique effect as each one did in Palo Santo. I can’t pick a single song I don’t like. That said, I’ve yet to be impacted by the lyrical content.
Having grown up in Nabire, a small town on the beaches of Western New Guinea, I find the album’s approach to be quite powerful. The Papuans, descendents of the Aborigines, have found their freedom hounded away by the constant press of the Indonesian military. As a people their very identities are being auctioned off to machine gun carbines and motorcycle smoke. Songs like “Uniforms” and “Runners of the Sun” embody the steady attrition of this people’s way of life. It’s an album of unimaginable scope and scale—encompassing every facet of the landscape I grew to love, from the slow moving glaciers up in the mountains to the humid chokehold of sea level. And always the sensation of wind and rain, the images of the sea woven throughout, the devastation of the tidal wave and the fury of a volcanic eruption.
Yeah, I’m all about the hyperbole. Shearwater invites these images, though. I remember when I first introduced my friend Josh to the band on the floor of my parents’ basement in Colorado (“La Dame et Licorne” from Palo Santo) he got this far away look in his eyes and told me this was the band he’d been looking for. Fire and water and earth and wind: it had them all. Shearwater gives voice to the unspoken fury and serenity of the natural world, a rage in the face of all we’ve taken for granted in the day-to-day ho hum of concrete suburban/urban life. Take this band up the mountainside or into the blanketing quiet of your bedroom and you’ll find yourself transported to a world with its own mythology and a pulse all its own.