Shearwater’s The Golden Archipelago reminded me of hobbits even before I learned the album was the final part of a three-part series. It doesn’t have have any songs that are specifically redolent of fantastic creatures. There are no pan flutes. But the album feels like a circumscribed epic. It feels longer than its thirty-eight minutes would imply. Its the feverdream of a precocious youth. At its best, the album sounds huge and warm like spending an endless, sunny day at the beach. Sometimes it feels like how it feels when you spend too much time in the sauna: overheated and limpid. TGA, for better or worse, answers the question ‘What would it sound like if Yanni were a twentysomething naturalist indie rocker?’
Hobbits? Yanni? This is not some super cool indie rock album. I am sure that there is someone in the band whose job it is is to be the ‘percussionist.’ I am sure that it would be hilarious if demo versions of some of the songs were released (“Black Eyes” and “Castaways,” for instance). I am sure that principle auteur behind Shearwater, Jonathan Meiburg, is a very serious dude. What I am not sure about is whether I like this album.
If I hadn’t listened to it more than ten or fifteen times this past week, I doubt I would have listened to it once. Rook, Shearwater’s previous album, gained the band considerable amounts of hype. That album feels a little shaggier and a lot more muscular. In a way, then, you could read TGA as a bit of a retreat. The lyrics are near uniformly about nature, yet they’re cut of a more introspective, Wordsworthian cloth. They evoke the interior experience of adventure rather than adventure itself. In a way, the music mirrors the lyrics. It often sounds thrilling, yet in a somewhat tacky, staged way. It’s as if the album were composed to be the soundtrack to an epic Planet Earth-type show. It is about how sweep and grandeur decay. It is about human solitude among the floral/faunal multitude. But it is always about these things rather than the things themselves.
I know it is ridiculous to expect an album literally to be the decay of sweep and grandeur. Except that it isn’t. Some of the truly great pop albums literally are the thing they’re about. Think of Kid A, Loveless, and Illmatic. Those albums manage to become or embody what they were about. They suppress the supposed lifetime that lay between thought and expression. They are immediate. Shearwater’s TGA never feels immediate. Yet its ambition is obvious. Like I said, it makes you think of hobbits and Yanni and epic, sunlight adventures. This is not a great album, but it might not have to be great if you’re interested in is ambitious, baroque pop music.