I heard Shearwater’s all-but-forgotten first album (The Dissolving Room) when I was 15, and it was a revelation. This was before I could rattle off a dozen bands doing that album’s melancholy Americana better, so at the time it seemed singularly moving. While the album captured everything I wanted from music in minute detail, Shearwater (which then included Okkervil River’s Will Sheff) eventually fell off my radar, and I largely ignored them for almost a decade even as they blew the fuck up. Now, with 10 years of listening under my belt, this album shows up to exhume the feelings of my 15-year-old self.
In short, The Golden Archipelago is remarkable. Serving as the final part of a trilogy that includes the much feted records Rook and Palo Santo, the album is an epic feat of baroque pop craftsmanship, something akin to an update of Scott IV or Dusty in Memphis for the new millennium. It rises and falls with an impossible blend of stately grace and brilliant romanticism, never failing to captivate for even a single moment. Every orchestral flourish and distant vocal counterpoint is impeccably executed; every song works in service to a greater whole. It’s a symphony of pop classicism, a warm-blooded answer to Dirty Projectors’ The Getty Address.
Impressively, while each track goes together well, they also maintain discrete identities (appropriate for an album ostensibly about islands). In the course of the first 10 minutes, the album seamlessly strings together gently pulsing melancholy (“Meridian”), triumphantly stomping quasi-rock (“Black Eyes”), and a kind of dark, tropical vamp that one-ups The Black Heart Procession’s Amore del Tropico (“Landscape at Speed”). But while the sheer versatility of the arrangements here is impressive in and of itself, it’s the muscular songwriting that propels The Golden Archipelago. There’s not a wasted note to be found in this all-too-brief 38 minutes, no song that can or should be skipped. While a few tracks stand out (perhaps most notably lead single “Castaways” and its heartrending epic swells), there’s really no low point to speak of.
More generally, however, there’s one trick that Shearwater has yet to fully master: the art of rocking convincingly. Evidently, when frontman Jonathan Meiburg left Okkervil River to pursue Shearwater full time, he didn’t take any of that band’s frothy-mouthed conviction with him. While tracks like “Corridors” are certainly intense, any lizard-brain-level impact is undercut by the impeccable tastefulness of the arrangements and the weirdly operatic characteristics Meiburg’s voice takes on when he sings above a whisper. This isn’t to say “Corridors” isn’t a great song, just that it fails to reach the fist-pumping heights Shearwater aims for. It remains easier to imagine Meiburg conducting his band in coattails than to imagine him stage diving.
Barring this relatively inconsequential complaint, The Golden Archipelago finds Shearwater primed to take their rightful place in the upper echelon of contemporary indie pop. If anything trips this album up, it’ll likely be that the tracks, taken individually, don’t do justice to the whole. It’s a dangerous move in an era of blogs (insert your own gloomy observation about “the death of the album” here). All the same, I’m not complaining, and neither will those smart enough to take The Golden Archipelago on its own terms.