There’s a moment, sometime each week, where I’ll be standing in the kitchen and the music is coming through my big speakers (lovely speakers, old and solid, barely using an eighth of their capacity), the sea breeze is coming through the French doors and Dr Sternlove will look up from her laptop and say “who’s this?” Then I’ll grin and say it’s Shearwater. This has become a trope, an inside joke. If Dr Sternlove doesn’t recognise it, it’s always Shearwater. (Except when it’s Okkervil River.)
The uncertainty, and the question, arises from the fact that the three Shearwater albums I play are all of a piece, a trilogy of aural warbling and fading, consistent in tone and the songs (let alone the albums) are not completely discernable from each other to the casual listener. I imagine that Dr Sternlove hears a tone and doesn’t quite dismiss it as being the usual kind of thing I listen to when cooking and since it is not instantly dismissible she asks the question. We love the laughter that follows, we love the eye embrace, poignantly soundtracked by Jonathon Meiburg’s dissonant crooning.
For this reason alone I can’t help but love the Island Arc trilogy but it’s not what leads me to play it, and play it over and over again. The three albums that make up the trilogy (Palo Santo, Rook, and The Golden Archipelago) are not like the other Shearwater albums which are reasonably interesting indie rock doing reasonably interesting indie rock licks. No, the trilogy is its own thing. Part of my compulsion to play the trilogy is a lack of comprehension. It’s not clear, it’s never made clear, what is going on, but something is, something big.
From my reading it’s an apocalypse, a Day of the Triffids in music. The world is dying and the birds fall from the sky, fish float, and the dirt will not allow life to grow. It’s all over for people and there’s something beautiful in this. Initially there’s a lushness, a clatter of energy and drive and curiosity moving through Palo Santo: a calmly perceived perplexity. You hear snippets of despair, fragments of disappointment, gushings of rage, and a million emotional textures flashing around the periphery. There are also a million instruments treated with invention and care. Feedback from a glockenspiel is something pretty cool, though for sometime I couldn’t tell what it was and was quietly convinced it was a real dying bird on “Sing Little Birdie.” Happily, somehow, it wasn’t.
If Palo Santo is a description of the world dying; Rook is a description of a living thing suddenly dead. Without death throes the tone is sombre, even dire, and the peaks and troughs are gone: dead things don’t move. It’s an elegy, imagining a dead world Rook maps the rigor mortis:
when the rooks were laid in the piles
by the sides of the road,
they were crashing into the aerials,
hanging from the laundry lines.
and, gathered in a field,
they were burned in a feathering pyre,
with their cold, black eyes.
when the swallows fell from the eaves,
and the gulls from the spires,
the starlings, in millions,
would feed on the ground where they lie.
And this is one of the warmer tunes. I love it, and the songs get better as the creeping end-ness of life etherising away is described and abhorred. There are no flashy demonstrations of earth first commitment or Sea Shepherd like ‘better that we all die’ sentimentality, the mourning that creeps in as the album progresses (realised most fully in “The Snow Leopard”) is not for people, not even for birds or whales or whole hillsides of dead trees. The mourning is for connection, for the wonder of being a part of a greater thing. That’s what Meiburg is really elegising, the interconnectedness of being alive and the splendour of being a fraction of something big.
The final instalment of the trilogy is The Golden Archipelago and it wasn’t admired as much as the first two, it was described as dull, very unkindly in my view. Listening to The Golden Archipelago is like watching a wine glass fall to a softly carpeted floor, there’s no break and there’s no crash: there’s just the slow motion elegance of an object moving from rest, to motion, to rest again, with some curious fluid dynamics thrown in for a sense of poetry.
The music is less fragile, there’s a kerchunk to the drums and keyboards that mean the grandeur of the Palo Santo and Rook is put aside and there’s less drama as a result. The space resulting from this gesture enables the songs to produce a warm sense of insignificance. And the album celebrates that insignificance, makes it whole, rides it down until the thing of which we are a part is something else and then expresses wonder at this new thing as incomprehensible as the thing that preceded it. That wonder is enough to suggest some hope.
That’s what Dr Sternlove hears as she tippity taps away on her keyboard, the suggestion of hope, that’s the tone. It’s what makes me grin when she hears it and asks her question. It’s one of the many things I adore about her, that she has an ear for hope. Shearwater too.