Despite the fact that they were never really a true side project, and now neither member plays in each other’s bands, I’ll always think of Okkervil River when I hear anything about the band Shearwater. Shearwater was, essentially, the music that didn’t quite fit in with Okkervil’s song set; the sadder, quieter and oft times more difficult music was their bag and went hand-in-hand with Jonathan Meiburg’s melodramatic warble and the stringy arrangements.
The only problem for me is that their sound tended to be a bit heavy-handed, and this is especially prevalent in their sixth album The Golden Archipelago. The music was always pretty, but dragged through murky accompaniments and melancholy settings, and this never really evolved throughout the decade of music they released. In essence, their music was the pop version of Adagio for Strings, undeniably beautiful yet wholly depressing.
That makes it really difficult to cut them too far down to size, as one can’t criticize them for their craft. Like the other records before this, The Golden Archipelago is tender, introspective and lush. There’s a nice instrumental balance, the simple acoustic guitar of the first track offset by driving pianos and percussion in the second. The album attempts on a number of occasions to break out of this glum box it’s put itself into, raging in one instance on “Corridors” and just barely squeaking out a major-keyed chorus on “God Made Me” and “Castaways” (even though the latter retains it’s massive sense of the over dramatic), but for the most part, Shearwater’s an old dog that seems far away from learning any new tricks.
The nutshell is, the formula’s gotten a bit dull. Conceptually they’ve branched out a bit; this is a record, after all, meant to revolve around a tropical island’s pace and a softer musical sound. But break down the music itself, and it feels awfully similar to Rook, in both its overarching melodrama and its inability to climb out of the depths of despair. Give the band credit for its impeccable artistry, as well as understanding and respect for the concept album. Surely the fans will find something here, let them enjoy it. For me, it’s not something I can imagine myself returning to that often.