On 2008’s magnificent Rook, Shearwater finally delivered on the promise of previous albums with a taut, hook-filled batch of art rock singles that were as emotionally powerful as they were melodically sound. For their sixth full-length offering, Jonathan Meiburg and company have crafted an ambitious, occasionally maddening ode to the natural world that owes more than a little tip of the hat to mid-'70s Peter Gabriel and the quieter moments of Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut. The Golden Archipelago, a toothy, epic examination of island life, both physical and metaphysical, is enigmatic to say the least (the Deluxe Edition includes a massive sepia-tone 75-page “dossier” that could have easily served as the foundation for an episode of ABC’s Lost), but it lacks the magic of Rook’s more muscular moments. Meiburg’s rich falsetto is frailer here, opting for vulnerability over might. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes for a sleepy voyage, albeit one fraught with enough emotional weight to render the weariness earned. Tracks like “Meridian,” “Castaways,” “An Insular Life,” and “Hidden Lakes” are as good as anything he’s put to tape thus far, blissfully reveling in their botanical, spiritual, and historical milieus without a care in the world (outside of their feverish, dreamlike intents), but too much of the album is weighed down by slow, overly expansive numbers that would be great on a record that wasn’t brimming over with them already. The Golden Archipelago succeeds more often than it fails, and it only fails when cast in the shadow of its predecessor. Still, Shearwater have vision (they are indeed the lone voice of lofty, melodramatic, and undeniably beautiful progressive rock for the MP3 age), and with each record they prove themselves worthy of the graceful, long-winged seabird from which they drew their name.
The Golden Archipelago Review
by James Christopher Monger