There is an intentionally insular, isolated quality to the songs on ‘The Golden Archipelago’, Shearwater’s gloriously theatrical sixth album. It reflects the band’s desire to paint a benevolent musical portrait of island life while also entwining the story of man’s eternal escape to the fabled seclusion of the isle. It’s the final chapter of the bands planned trilogy (which began with ‘Palo Santo’ and continued on ‘Rook’), with each release woven together by their intimate beauty and often grand subject matter, like the continuing deterioration of the natural world and mankind’s ever increasing global footprint. There are subtle, lush arrangements threaded throughout these albums, especially on ‘The Golden Archipelago’, which is a soaring, majestic pinnacle for Shearwater, and represents a stunning realization of the Austin bands lofty ambition.
The album begins with a gentle hymn sung by inhabitants of the islet of Kili, exiled there since atomic tests made their home intolerable. It’s a natural, significant start to the record, and gradually gives way to the acoustic strains of ‘Meridian’, which features the rising falsetto of Jonathan Meiburg over a minimal piano line that lingers forebodingly below the surface of the song. The album really erupts on ‘Black Eyes’, the first single, which is driven by an insistent piano and a simmering intensity that is fully unleashed through Meiburg’s desperate vocals. It’s an incredibly rousing track that successfully lights the fuse of this quietly volatile record.
‘Landscape At Speed’ is energized by the restrained but steady drumming of Thor Harris, whose distinctive beat keeps time amidst the spacey, Radiohead-ish guitar lines threaded throughout the song. But that is a rare example of any discernible outside influence on the band, with Shearwater delivering a thoroughly original sound throughout ‘Archipelago’ that is at once genuine and secluded, much like the islands they sing of-but also quite warm and inviting, as the best isles often are. The electric pulse of ‘Corridors’ enlivens the albums middle half, injecting it with a welcome potency before it shifts to the more somber tones of ‘God Made Me’ and ‘Runners Of The Son’, which are splendid in their own right but lack the emphatic assertiveness of the more bracing numbers. ‘Castaways’ is the jewel of the collection, gradually growing in strength and sentiment as Meiburg’s vocals effortlessly rise above the tribal rhythms. It’s an anthemic centerpiece of the record, and never fails to impress and inspire.
With such imposing and monumental subject matter, Shearwater could have easily turned Archipelago into a bloated, over-long affair, but it is to the bands credit that the album remains taut and concise throughout, never falling victim to the trappings that their weighty themes often engender. And the velvety production of John Congleton eases these songs into the stratosphere without them ever sounding forced or synthetic. These brief numbers never lose their focus and become even more significant due to their brevity and lingering tension. ‘An Insular Life’ and ‘Uniforms’ gently float by, but still retain an affecting melody and lyrical brilliance that give the slight songs an added depth and prudence. ‘Missing Islands’ closes the album in a tender, wistful manner, with Meiburg’s plaintive vocals ringing out for those that have lost their voice. It’s a stirring, perfunctory ode to a time and a place that we won’t soon see again. The Golden Archipelago is a collection of snapshots of fading regions of recluse, where man can’t help but ruin with their intentions. There isn’t much uncharted territory left out there, but if you are indeed lucky enough to discover a place unspoiled by modern machinations, put this album on as a soundtrack to your edifying discovery.