It is well known to Shearwater fans that frontman Jonathan Meiburg was once a graduate student in ornithology who named his band after a type of bird that flies just above the surface of the water. As part of his academic studies Meiburg has done field research on remote islands all over the world. Such studies demand a discipline and attention to detail one does not usually associate with indie rock bands. The Golden Archipelago, inspired by Meiburg’s time tramping through delicate island ecosystems that are changing and disappearing as a result of environmental catastrophe, has been billed as the third in a triptych of records that began with 2006’s Palo Santo and continued with 2008’s Rook, and the band has saved the biggest for last.
Meiburg’s background informs every second of the band’s sixth full-length album. The songs are as delicate as the hollow bones of a small bird, as formal and structured as a PhD dissertation. There is undeniable passion in Meiburg’s voice when he sings of “summoning the holy light/on their citadels/the blackening light/the collapsing sun” on “Castaways,” encourages the listener to “look down on the rolling waves/that strike the crumbling reef now” on “Black Eyes,” or even just repeats the lyric “oh my my my my my” over and over on the stunning “Corridors.” The record clocks in at a brisk 38 minutes, which feels like the perfect length. Any longer and the listener might be exhausted.
But while Meiburg is undeniably the driving force behind this band, it is the percussion work of Thor Harris that holds these songs together. Whether he is beating a standard drum kit, tapping on a glockenspiel, or working over one of the several homemade instruments he utilizes, Harris underscores Meiburg’s singing while also keeping his voice from overpowering the work being done by the rest of the band (Kim Harris plays bass, and in concert Shearwater is joined by multi-instrumentalists Jordan Geiger and Kevin Schneider.)
When I saw Shearwater play the club Spaceland in Los Angeles recently, Meiburg told a story about participating in a charity event at the Forum a couple of years ago, when the band got its biggest cheer ever for their first thirty seconds on stage before the crowd realized they were not Coldplay. The Golden Archipelago is a startling maturation from the rambling and wonderful weirdness of Palo Santo and the rock-band ambitions of Rook. If there is any justice in the music world, this album will be the one that finally earns Shearwater the recognition the band’s musicianship deserves.