Naming his band after a family of seabirds, it’s no surprise to discover that Shearwater songwriter Jonathan Meiburg is a committed ornithologist, and on ‘The Golden Archipelago’ the influence of years of globe-trotting natural research are brought to bear.
The album’s title conjures up images of beautiful, remote island life, an idea initially given weight by what sounds like a faint sea shanty in its opening moments. Any expectation that ‘The Golden Archipelago’ is an idealised state akin to Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ is undercut by the revelation that the people singing these words are exiles from Bikini Atoll, the Pacific island rendered effectively uninhabitable by the United States’ atomic weapons tests.
Without this knowledge, opening track ‘Meridian’ remains one of ‘The Golden Archipelago’s most beautiful moments, its delicate wafts of light piano and strings supporting Meiburg’s soft, murmuring vocals in a gorgeous introduction to the album’s almost entirely gentle soundworld.
Aside from the comparatively frantic, nervy ‘Corridors’, Shearwater have created a largely soporific album, only occasionally rising to Arcade Fire crescendos of orchestra and percussion. In this sense, the group are quite evidently reflecting the oceans that provide home for their namesake, the swells that occur in ‘Castaways’ and ‘Uniforms’ being the storms between ‘The Golden Archipelago’s becalmed opening and closing minutes.
Musically, Shearwater bring to mind such familiar, comforting marine pieces as The Doors’ ‘The Crystal Ship’, the instrumental interludes on Eno’s ‘Another Green World’, even the soundtrack to ‘The Snowman.’
More blatantly, Meiburg pitches his singing very much in the style of Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, placing ‘The Golden Archipelago’ somewhere between that band’s ‘The Colour Of Spring’ and ‘Spirit Of Eden’ masterpieces, with their parallel interests in solitude and the natural world. Such unforced vocals also tend to obscure any of the album’s lyrical politics, making ‘The Golden Archipelago’ perhaps more of an exercise in ambient escapism than Shearwater intended. SH