In the wake of some high profile deaths in the days and hours that heralded the arrival of 2016 the cultural climate seems to have taken on a sense of nostalgia. Celebrating past success and looking to the past for inspiration seems to be a coping mechanism for many when dealing with grief. Shearwater's second full-length album since signing to Sub Pop mines a similar vein. While its conception and recording pre-dated the passing of the Thin White Duke, Shearwater's album seems to have accidentally captured the mood of the zeitgeist. The material here deliberately owes much to Bowie, Talk Talk, and Talking Heads, as songwriter Jonathan Meiburg embraces the best elements of early eighties instrumentation and production. If the death of Bowie and Shearwater's new album share a common theme, it's that nostalgia need no longer be viewed as detrimental or a dirty word in creative circles.
The album title itself puts this feeling front and centre, referring to a view Meiburg re-called while looking back from an aircraft window. However the album doesn't come across as entrenched in a re-imagined 1980's. It's ambitious, lush, and intricate, but this is grounded in some of the best material Meiburg has produced to date. The first half of the record feels like the most radical departure from what has come before; it's all synths and swelling crescendos. 'Quiet Americans' in particular owes a debt to early Depeche Mode with swathes of drum machines and electronics intertwining with the band itself, it's got a distinctly Pop tinge. The latter half of the album finds guitars taking more prominence. 'Only Child' starts in a delicate fashion before building into something glorious. If there's a moment where both approaches meet in perfect harmony it's on 'Wildlife In America', which finds a satisfying balance between the lead piano and the acoustic and electric guitars. On subsequent listens these later songs shed light on the approach taken on the opening cuts, your appreciation for the album only grows with time.
If there's something that really draws the attention throughout, it's Cully Symington's drumming. The percussion seems to have taken much inspiration from Radiohead's Phil Selway and his approach to both live and pre-programmed drums. The patterns are deceptively complicated and varied propelling Meiburg's compositions forward with urgency. That former Redd Kross drummer Brian Reitzell was also involved is not surprising with these results. His more recent soundtrack work informs the lavish soundscapes created by the combination of synths and drums, which often build to anthemic proportions
Lyrically Meiburg describes Jet Plane And Oxbow as a protest record. If he's rallying against anything it's 21st century American values, which is perhaps why there is an interest in looking to the past for answers here. On 'Wildlife In America' for example he encapsulates the approach he takes on the album succinctly; "Stay away from old thoughts, old doubts, and old feelings. But keeping it so far down isn't easy". 'Only Child' also shows an interest in the loss of childhood innocence, it seems to be at the root of Meiburg's commentary on the world.
All of this is to say that Shearwater's latest effort is a complex beast beyond the sheen of production that initially draws you in. There are genuine anthems to be found here, amidst darker moments, it's a satisfyingly complete meal. Technically its their most accomplished album, but beyond that it also re-positions the Texan band as one of America's most ambitious and interesting Indie acts. To have achieved that in the span of just eleven songs really is quite an achievement.
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