Shearwater’s latest in his triptych on intense, worldly, majestic albums takes the scale and drama of Rook to a gorgeous new level, pushing the rock and post-rock elements up a notch and adding a drive to the sound that suggests a sense of desperation and climax that Jonathan Meiburg’s incredible voice carries with a beautiful fragility and tension.
‘Meridian’ opens this album with chanting from the anthem of Bikini Atoll, sung by locals in exile on the islet of Kili, where they have lived since the atomic tests. Strong natural imagery is the backbone of Shearwater’s work, with a lyrical focus on landscape and environmentalism. Civilisation’s impact on nature is still the main subject matter for Meiburg in The Golden Archipelago, using it as a potent metaphor for personal emotional struggles, which is clear from the continuation of the beautiful photographic album art and its strong symbolism. ‘Meridian’ continues with soft vocals, delicate acoustic guitar and sparse arpeggiated piano ornaments, eventually introducing a heartbeat of a bass drum, building you up – and then it’s suddenly over, leaving you ready, hungry for more. None of these songs are too long, and perhaps they’re even not long enough. Each track being roughly about three to four and a half minutes long means that Shearwater’s explosive highs and mellow lows are compacted into little pearls.
‘Black Eyes’ takes you to a gutsier place with its rock drum beat, gruff guitars and anthemic vocals, introducing the rougher side of this album, and ‘Landscape at Speed’ continues in this vein, starting with a fantastic, almost tribal beat, complex and continuous. Typical Shearwater piano chords enter while the melody wanders around the lower octaves and then occasionally soars upwards brilliantly, and a repeating sad descending guitar riff cries out over and over again, like a sea-siren. It ends with a postrock distortion wash, which leads well in to ‘Corridors’ – probably the roughest, heaviest track on the album. ‘Corridors’ pushes the rock element with a faster, stronger beat and a gutsier guitar line, more powerful vocals and an intense climax for the album.
Of course, Shearwater contrast this beautifully with the waltzing piano opening of ‘Hidden Lakes’, which situates The Golden Archipelago strongly back in folk roots and is conversely delicate, melodic and pastoral. Meiburg’s caramel, supported voice is truly showcased on ‘Castaways’, a beautiful anthem, climbing up in thirds, never faltering, as the music slowly and subtly builds up behind him.
The album is diverse in its various sounds, too, with ‘An Insular Life’ using mallet percussion and flourishes of echoing electric guitar that sound like they’ve rode on in from a surf song, as well as filmic, Philip Glass-like elements in ‘Uniforms’.
This is an album where every song could continue on if it wanted, as if full of endless potential for epic catharsis. But as they stand, the tracks are each complete and the album delivers constant creativity, strength after strength, each track like a brief snapshot of a stunning natural wonder – a waterfall, a mountain, a desert, an ice-shelf – and you are left with a sense of awe and the feeling like the world is a big, miraculous place of countless beauties and precious sights. The Golden Archipelago is an impressive continuation of Shearwater’s concept albums, and is a relevant, powerful album for our time.