Some bands burst forth with a fully formed identity and trajectory, one from which they diverge reluctantly, if at all. Other bands, like Shearwater, slowly emerge from a musical chrysalis, wings drying and taking shape in the sun, before delicately taking flight into a vast, transcontinental migration.
Shearwater began as an offshoot of Okkervil River, the Austin-based band led by Will Sheff. Jonathan Meiburg had joined Okkervil River on keyboards and accordion. On the early Shearwater records, Sheff and Meiburg alternated songwriting and vocals. The Dissolving Room and Everybody Makes Mistakes show promise but are incomplete and fragmentary. At this stage, Sheff was the more accomplished songwriter, but his contributions feel like unfinished Okkervil River demos. Meiburg, by comparison, shows an aptitude for sonics: singing in a whispery alto croon over fingerpicked acoustic guitars with minimal accompaniment. The singing is tentative and the compositional craft leaves plenty of room for growth. Still, what Meiburg was offering was undeniably distinctive, pulling from the haunted folk of Nick Drake and Mark Hollis’s no-longer-rock-music approach to atmospherics in later-period Talk Talk.
2004’s Winged Life (and the various live recordings that followed) shows marked progress, another Meiburg-Sheff record on which the two writers share their songs. Meiburg’s material shows real growth, including the banjo-driven “Whipping Boy,” the stately chamber pop of “St. Mary’s Walk” and the hymnlike opener “A Hush.” Sheff’s rueful “The Convert” sounds, well, like Okkervil River. While the title “Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine” sounds like it should be an Okkervil River song (or at least a Tin Pin Alley tune, whence the line comes), it’s actually one of Meiburg’s.
As both Okkervil River and Shearwater gained prominence, an amicable separation took shape. Sheff’s work in Okkervil River moved toward circular, literate but ramshackle populist anthems and aligned well with other artists moving from indie toward the mainstream, like the National and the Decemberists. Meanwhile, Meiburg was a formally trained ecologist conducting fieldwork in the Amazon, the Falklands, the Galapagos and other exotic locales, where his research focused on remote human communities and their interactions with the natural world, especially birds. This sensibility would grow increasingly prominent in Shearwater’s music, both thematically and in explicit lyrical content.
With Palo Santo (named for a shrub burned for incense in ceremonies), Meiburg took Shearwater in a bold new direction, mystical and yearning but with a greater sense of the dynamics that were in short supply on its early records. Sheff plays on the record, but doesn’t sing, leaving Meiburg as the solitary lyrical voice. Palo Santo is a giant leap forward, both for Meiburg’s songwriting and his skills in the studio. The sound is fleshed out with banjo and keyboard, adding substantial drama and heft to songs like “Red Sea Black Sea” and “Seventy-four, Seventy-five.” From the first vocal on “La Dame et la Licorne” it’s clear that Meiburg’s singing has also gained forcefulness and presence to fit the songs. The initial release by Misra is a gripping and lovely record, and larger labels took note: Palo Santo was reissued by Merge the following year, doubled in length with additional outtakes and alternate versions, a brighter mix and completely different artwork and design. Both versions are great, although the reissue may be a bit overwhelming for new listeners.
Palo Santo started the Shearwater “Island Arc,” a loose trilogy of artistically and thematically linked records continuing with Rook and wrapping up with The Golden Archipelago. Rook is 45 minutes long, but seems weightier than that — all slow builds, tension and release, lushly orchestrated piano and guitar with Meiburg’s vocals floating, seemingly meters above the instrumental background. “Rooks” and “Leviathan, Bound” build dramatic tension from Meiburg’s keyboards and crashing string arrangements. “The Snow Leopard,” later the basis for a standalone EP, is another Meiburg masterpiece. With producer John Congleton, The Golden Archipelago is even further from pop, rarely relying on verse-chorus-verse structures but instead creating an immersive, densely layered sequenced soundscape that loosely captures the delicate ecological balance of remote islands. The delicate piano and overdubbed vocals of “Hidden Lakes” go into the heart-pounding frenzy of “Corridors.” The undeniable highlight is “Castaways,” in which fragmentary lyrics of violence and yearning are ultimately redeemed in the tide.
The overall power of the Island Arc rests in its depth of vision and thematic unity, not in its individual songs. Like Hayao Miyazaki’s best films, it offers a vision in which the spirits of the natural world reach out in an attempt to regain a balance with humanity. The music and lyrical intensity can be almost painful at times, deeply emotional and nearly overwrought, but suffused with an undeniable power.
Shearwater toured incessantly throughout this period, shows documented in the live compilation The Island Arc Excerpts and the studio collection Missing Islands: Demos and Outtakes 2008-2010, both self-released and available for download. Core members joining Meiburg included Lucas Oswald, bassist Sadie Powers, and drummer Josh Halpern, but a host of other players would come and go throughout this period — many of them returning as guests on future records and tours.
The Island Arc era finished, Meiburg again shifted gears after Shearwater signed to Sub Pop. Animal Joy is a forthright rock album with more direct lyrical content and admirable crunch. For a songwriter whose work can come across as hermetic and obscurantist, these songs are immediate and accessible. “Animal Life,” “You As You Were” and “Breaking the Yearlings” are simply great rock numbers, with rippling keyboards, memorable guitar lines and forceful drums by Thor Harris, better known for his work with the Swans. As the liner notes aver, “No strings or glockenspiels were touched during the making of this album.” The recurring theme, unsurprisingly for Meiburg, is the appeal of recapturing the wild animal spirit that lies within us all. Alongside Palo Santo, this is the easiest entry point to the Shearwater repertoire. Listening to Meiburg’s vocals — stentorian and imperious at times, arch and poised at others — it’s almost impossible to connect them to the delicate warble of the first Shearwater albums.
Following Animal Joy, Shearwater put out the cannily named Fellow Travelers record: covers of songs by bands with whom Shearwater had toured. It’s a bit of a lark, and some selections are more interesting than good, but there’s a rowdy version of Xiu Xiu’s “I Luv the Valley OH!,” a less-than-ideal version of the Folk Implosion’s “Natural One” and admirable attempts at stylistically dissimilar performers like Clinic, Coldplay and St. Vincent. While the record is a relatively minor entry in his catalogue, Meiburg isn’t merely parroting his former tourmates, but trying to put a distinctive Shearwater touch on the material. Covers became a common element for Shearwater at that point, extending from the Fellow Travelers record to include a joint 45 with Sharon Van Etten in which a spirited cover of Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks’ “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” joins their own dense “A Wake for the Minotaur,” the sole original on Fellow Travelers.
Multi-instrumentalist, special effects wizard and graphic designer Emily Lee auditioned for Shearwater as a mega-fan, joining on 2016’s Jet Plane and Oxbow and subsequent tours. The album benefits enormously from her skills, as did the subsequent tour, for which she created a vivid stage presentation (later captured in The Sky Is a Blank Screen). Jet Plane and Oxbow is a political record, rare in the directness of Meiburg’s attempt to capture the nation’s flaws and shortcomings. Soundtrack producer and percussionist Brian Reitzell offers a rich musical bed for the songs, pulling from new wave right at the the outset: a circular keyboard riff opening “Prime,” the gamelan-like riff of “Filaments,” and the thumping motorik beat of the stunning “Quiet Americans,” in which Meiburg rails against “Our dimmed conscience / Our hands and eyes that wander / Stumbling down the road / Or collapsing on parade.” “Pale Kings” has the arpeggiated guitars of what could have been a massive Unforgettable Fire hit alongside “Bad.” Somehow, JP & O has a longer running time than any of the records of the Island Arc trilogy (save the expanded Palo Santo) but it goes by in a breathless rush, driven by the energy and verve of tracks like “Radio Silence.” The whole thing calls to mind the pop-friendly moment of experimentation where post-punk guitars met new wave and synthesizers in the early 1980s, and it is quite unlike anything else in Meiburg’s magpie-like collection of musical influences. Guests include Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak, Flock of Dimes), Jesca Hoop, Abram Shook and many others.
In the tour for Jet Plane and Oxbow, Shearwater had been pulling selections from David Bowie’s Lodger into the set list as encores, for reasons that are typically Meiburgian. On a field expedition in the Amazon, he got ill with a high fever and had vivid nightmares of spiders. He returned to Lodger for solace, first on a whim, then in more dedicated fashion following Bowie’s death in January 2016. He and the band learned the entirety of Bowie’s knotty Berlin record, from the hits (“D.J.” and “Look Back in Anger”) to more obstinate numbers like “Red Money” and “Move On.” Recorded first for The Onion’s AV Club, the full-length Lodger cover album would eventually grow into the even more grandiose three-night, three-album live performance of Bowie’s entire Berlin trilogy (i.e., Low, “Heroes” and Lodger) at New York’s Winter Garden Atrium in October 2018. It was, by any reasonable standard, cuckoo — a ridiculously ambitious undertaking. Some of the Bowie tracks are global anthems, at which almost any bar band could take a swing and fall far short. Others, like the second side of “Heroes,” are thorny and challenging even for classically trained performers. There was a clear precedent for this direction of Shearwater’s interests: They had covered Eno, Bauhaus and Roxy Music in past shows. But three albums over three nights presented a far greater degree of difficulty. As documented the following year, Emily Lee’s arrangements were tight and Meiburg’s singing was spectacular. It would have been tempting to swan about the stage and treat it as a gimmick, but the band and guests were deeply committed to the material and treated it with reverence, but not with kid gloves. The core Shearwater touring band of Meiburg, Lee, Powers, Halpern and Oswald was joined by members of Xiu Xiu, Deerhoof, Battle Trance, Glass Ghost and Cross Record. Carlos Alomar of Bowie’s Berlin-era band conducted the strings on “Warszawa,” and the entire enterprise was backed by the Wordless Music Orchestra. By the difficult standards that Meiburg et al set for themselves, it was an unqualified triumph.
The Jet Plane and Oxbow tour resulted in another consequential collaboration. Emily Cross and Dan Duszynski of Cross Record (who were, at the time, married to each other) opened the tour, and the members hit it off musically, resulting in Loma, a project in which Meiburg’s songs were sung by Emily Cross, backed by Meiburg on guitar, Lee on keyboards, and Duszynski on everything else. Loma, a surprising and moving project, was released by Sub Pop and drew unexpected acclaim, including favorable attention from NPR and even one of Meiburg’s greatest inspirations, Brian Eno. At times dreamy and distant, at others urgent and mechanical, Loma showcases the diversity of its influences. The sweeping melodies of “Joy” are the closest the band gets to folk, while the metallic clank and clatter of “Relay Runner“ capture the band at its most frenzied and energetic, all behind Cross’s coolly dispassionate vocals. Found sounds from the Texas Hill Country speckle the Loma catalogue: barking dogs, mating frogs, bird calls, creaking door hinges, even the grinding moan of a supermarket refrigerator make their way onto the tracks. All told, it’s a thrilling listen. Initially viewed as a one-off, Loma became a longer-term concern, releasing an instrumental soundtrack to a film about a young girl trained as an archer, with another vocals album and tour planned for 2020 — with some production assistance from Eno himself.
A tentative effort recorded to two-track in 2004, Meiburg’s solo Buteo Buteo emerged in 2010 but is for completists only. With frequent collaborator and tourmate Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu, he made Blue Water White Death, produced by Congleton and released that same year. It’s a weird, off-putting record by Shearwater standards, with eyebrow-raising titles like “Song for the Greater Jihad” and “Rendering the Juggalos,” but a fairly accessible one by Xiu Xiu standards. Your mileage may vary.