Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Shearwater – Jet Plane and Oxbow

When I first moved to Melbourne and joined a band, I received some advice I shouldn't have heeded. After our first gig, a friend's wife recommended that I face the crowd more and perform in a way that acknowledged someone was watching. (Admittedly, I was playing in an instrumental band, which can be notoriously boring to watch unless there are visuals.) I tried being more animated for a couple of the gigs that came after, but it felt weird and unnatural, so I gave up and concentrated on playing the music well, hoping this would be enough for anyone watching.

What's this got to with Shearwater? Well, this new album sounds like Jonathan Meiburg is self-conscious that more people than ever will be listening to his music, all of whom want to be impressed – and few of them will be paying for the privilege. Like its superb predecessor Animal Joy (2012), and the disposable covers album Fellow Travelers (2013) that followed, Jet Plane and Oxbow is released on Sub Pop. The stakes are high. It sounds like Meiburg may have considered that he needs to go big or go home. (He does have a parallel career as an ornithologist, so if Shearwater tanks, he could do that instead?) The promotional emails touting this release implored Shearwater fans to preorder, especially if they want the band to tour Australia. (I live in Australia, I'd love to see the band live, so my preorder dollars were immediately thrown their way.)

As much as I applaud the band's perspicacity, something feels awry. Let's suppose, for a moment, that it's possible to create a mid-tier indie-rock album in the 21st century without paying any attention to what's going on in the music industry, or of hoping to recoup the hours and dollars invested. Let's suppose that this music was created because its creators had a burning desire to do so – that this music needed to be made. Then, let's listen to Jet Plane and Oxbow and wonder how Shearwater got here, to these particular eleven songs. Much like Wild Beasts and Lower Dens – two bands whose recent albums (Present Tense and Escape From Evil, respectively) I also eagerly anticipated – there have been pre-release murmurings of a more '80s-sounding direction for Shearwater. First single 'Quiet Americans' seemed to suggest as much, with its prominent synth lines, strident drum sounds and in-your-face production.


Indeed, in an interview with Michael Azerrad on the Sub Pop website, Jonathan Meiburg makes reference to Bowie's Scary Monsters, Eno and Byrne's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, and Talking Heads' Remain In Light as influences. Great albums all, but their relationship with Jet Plane feels tangential at best. Those albums may have inspired Meiburg to employ synths, rototoms and gated snares, but these instrumental additions feel superficial.

What seems to have changed is Meiburg's confidence in occasionally reaching for a sound that could best be described as 'stadium rock'. When this confidence over-reaches, I can't help but cringe in embarrassment. 'Pale Kings' is the worst culprit, its breakneck banjos falling over themselves to keep up with the fist-pumping pace, the songwriting falling short of Meiburg's ambition. As far as I'm concerned, the song should never have made the final cut, which is especially perplexing when more worthy songs, such as 'Evidence' (the demo of which features on the Headwaters podcast), were abandoned. Later in the album, 'Wildlife in America' is a bland and uninspiring piano ballad, and 'Radio Silence' strives for a motorik momentum that soon wears out its welcome, dragging on for nearly seven minutes.

That said, when Jet Plane hits home, its power is undeniable. 'Backchannels' is stunning, with a guitar break reminiscent of Talk Talk's sublime Laughing Stock. 'Filaments' sounds like a re-work of Radiohead's 'Bangers and Mash', all bass filth and percussive clatter. New single 'Only Child' has elegance and restraint on its side, with a lovely turnaround on the bass. 'Glass Bones' is an anthemic rock song done right, its riff down and dirty enough to cut through my skepticism. And glorious closer 'Stray Light At Clouds Hill' injects some welcome space into the mix, its vocals sent boomeranging through a tape delay.

Listening to the Headwaters podcast, it sounds like Meiburg and his band developed the songs on Jet Plane through jamming. However, little on this album conveys these origins. Somewhere along the way, something has slipped off kilter, taking Shearwater in an unsatisfying direction for such a great band. With a frontman as intelligent and articulate as Jonathan Meiburg, some of the musical decisions here are frustratingly inexplicable. My expectations of this release were high, but like Spoon's latest album They Want Your Soul, what could've been a great album is simply a quite good one.

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