Austin's Shearwater return with the follow-up to "Palo Santo". "Rook" meditates on man's intersection with the natural world; the world after human beings are gone. A dark fairy tale encased in a cycle of songs. Jonathan Meiburg's bold, soaring voice still anchors the songs, which broaden his pastoral prog-folk chaotic celestial mindfuckery into new realms. Beyond the continuing touchstones of late Talk Talk, Nico, and John Cale, there are now allusions to Van Morrison and hints of Joni Mitchell. All set in a newly lush sonic gorgeousness of harp, strings, and woodwinds atop the magnificent rhythm section.
Review by James Christopher Monger
In 2007 Shearwater made the jump from Misra to Matador, culminating in a generously stocked reissue of 2006's excellent Palo Santo. It was a fitting partnership, as the band was beginning to settle into a more eclectic, rock-oriented outfit, raising the bar for its forthcoming "official" Matador debut. At just over 36 minutes, Rook is tailor-made for the dwindling attention span of the information age, but if ever the dated phrase "all killer, no filler" were to apply, it would be here. Jonathan Meiburg's gorgeous, melodramatic lyrics would reek with pretension out of anyone else's mouth, but his increasingly fluid and powerful voice, which is now caught somewhere between Jello Biafra, Jeff Buckley, and Tilt-era Scott Walker, demands full attention from the listener, a notion that often gets swept under the rug in the current lo-fi, D.I.Y. indie rock climate. The production is the band's most concise to date, thanks in part to the removal of at least half the amount of reverb used on previous recordings, allowing more percussive instruments like dulcimer, vibraphone, glockenspiel, harp, and banjo the chance to dance around the fire rather than disappear into the murky darkness that surrounds it. As with all Shearwater records, wildlife (specifically avian) imagery rules the roost. Starlings feast on dead crows, hunters wait in the melting snow for prey and pigs, oxen and even snow leopards drop in to assume positions of great metaphor. Opening track "On the Death of the Waters" plays out like the prologue of a maritime fairy tale, as the narrator waxes sublime from the prow of a ship to the strains of a delicate piano before exploding into a rage of brass, distortion, and drama that sounds like an outtake from Pink Floyd's The Wall. This "calm before the storm" aesthetic dominates Rook, and in another testament to its short running time, works beautifully, illuminating the few straightforward pieces like "Century Eyes," "Leviathan, Bound," and the brooding title track like a centuries-old woodcut, and allowing the tension that permeates the entire affair to ebb and flow naturally, resulting in one of the most heady and satisfying albums of the year.
Combined Rating: 82%
The fact that I love Rook way more than anything Okkervil River or Shearwater have done before obviously shows my personal bias towards the kind of nakedness that Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg have only previously implied, and if “emotional honesty” seems like a trite justification, perhaps a better way to put it is that this kind of music cares little for current trends. Like, the Arcade Fire might be enormously popular (at least in indie terms), but they weren’t “cool” until they started aping Springsteen. To create emotionally direct music isn’t a matter of sweeping all influences under the carpet, nor is it the result of unedited spontaneity. It’s a grueling process of uncovering layers of personal illusions and discovering a singular sense of integrity.
This chiseling process is palpable on Shearwater’s fifth LP. Rooks, like most of the crow family to which they belong, have long been seen as harbingers of death. They’re also said to be able to forecast weather and the changing of seasons and thus carry a certain duplicity in that they their messages can be alternately good or bad. References to death and changing seasons are all over Rook: on “Leviathan, Bound” Meiburg sings of a hunter taking down a giant beast in a field “where the winter has warmed and the snows have drained away.” Accordingly, singer and principal Meiburg never sees death in any one-sided way; despite the animal being bound up with a bullet in its heart, the heart, as Meiburg furiously bellows, “still is racing.” As the journey ends, so another begins.
I can’t think of another record in recent memory that warrants such thorough investigation into its symbolism. Like their spiritual and tonal mentors Talk Talk, Shearwater infuse every aspect of their art with their own personal obsessions, right down to that ominous cover picture. Meiburg, an ornithologist (the band’s name is another kind of bird, unsurprisingly), imbues his lyrics with a constant longing to be free of the ground which, in all its suggestion of shedding one’s material existence, is intricately tied up with ideas of death. The narratives of Rook suggest Baudelaire and Scandinavian mythology (recall: Odin, “the raven god”) among other things, and constantly reference a vast journey in which the protagonist (possibly the hunter referenced in both “Leviathan, Bound” and “The Hunter’s Star”) keeps looking into the sky, either as a guide or as a hopeless gesture of longing to be free of the “wasted body” he mentions in “The Snow Leopard.”
Meiburg’s voice embodies every ounce of that longing; if not as hauntingly meditative or vulnerable as Mark Hollis’s, it’s at least as able to move between deep inner turmoil and tranquil stillness within the same breath. Meiburg’s also got a great sense of projection: without letting his voice become simply an instrument, he allows his words to translate intelligibly and not suffocate the often stunning symphonic backdrop he sings against.
It’s nice, too, that this is still Rock Music, and that for every wistful, yearning ballad like “I Was A Cloud” there exists a blistering complement like “Century Eyes.” While musically it’s the closest the band gets to conventional rock, it’s also lyrically one of the most potent songs on the album and resolute proof that Meiburg is more than just a wide-eyed romantic. The opening line cuts through the frontier myth like fire through prairie brush: “You were not the first to arrive / And will not be the last to survive.” Two guitars chug in and out of sync like the poisoned pistons of the industrial monster Meiburg laments. Suddenly Rook has teeth; the song is bitter and cathartic at the same time—it’s also a hell of a lot of fun, with Meiburg agreeing, letting out a big “Whoo!” But what might be most remarkable about the song is that it’s in complete alignment with the lyrical themes of the rest of the album: the band is criticizing anyone ignorant enough not to cower in front of the immensity and violence of nature.
Most of the time, though, the band hovers between beauty and violence, even within the same track. Opener “On the Death of the Waters” is just Meiburg, soft, measured piano and delicate plucks in a contrabass until he sings “And that wave rises slowly / And breaks,” after which a wall of guitars crashes in and glissandos spill out. It’s remarkable to think that only one album ago Shearwater were still in something of a singer-songwriter vein, especially considering that this track recalls nothing if not the arched symphonic gestures of Genesis. A lot of people are going to scoff at the somewhat obvious dynamic shift—which, admittedly, you can sense coming a couple bars before it does—and the fact that the music transposes the lyrics a little too literally, but less obvious is when the band pulls back just as abruptly, leaving the piano alone once again. Instead of a numbing onslaught, it’s more a reminder of the brevity of violence and its often tranquil aftermath.
“Rooks” is subtler but no less effective: Meiburg, who’s at his baroque best, sings a descending melody again recalling Talk Talk (here, “New Grass”): “We’ll sleep until the world of men is paralyzed,” a cryptic but moving line that precedes a full-bodied trumpet blast. From this description it sounds like he’s still preaching doom, and yet the song—mid-tempo and propulsive—sounds completely enchanted, uplifting even. It’s this ambiguity that allows for exaggerated dynamics to sound graceful and impressionistic, like on “Home Life” where a flurry of strings fades into the light strumming of an acoustic guitar and faint bell chimes.
Worth mentioning about Rook, as something of a corollary to its ostensible punch-in-the-gut dynamics, is how creatively put together it all is, how “I Was A Cloud,” one of two genuine “ballads” here (along with closer “The Hunter’s Star”), gives the band a chance to really work with atmosphere, nudging in some lush harp and piano while altering Meiburg’s vocals so it sounds like he briefly fades into the distance before returning. On “The Snow Leopard” Meiburg bellows with greater force than anywhere else on the album and yet the song rounds out with an odd 7/4 bridge that’s still raw and cathartic.
Even at a mere 35 minutes, Rook is an exhausting listen. I don’t mean that as an affront: in its brief time, Meiburg sings like his life depends on it while the band plays like they’re holding a drowning man above water. Even at their most subdued moments Shearwater sound urgent, as if they have something desperate to communicate. They do, and the best we can do in turn is grab a wing of whichever bird Meiburg attaches himself next.
11 June 2008