Shearwater: Jet Plane and Oxbow
I met my future significant other at a Shearwater show in February, 2012. Technically, it was a Sharon Van Etten show, but I was there for Jonathan Meiburg and company. They opened with a set of songs from Animal Joy, their latest release at the time, and cemented themselves as one of my favourite working rock bands. Amid the general exhaustion of rock music’s vitality in both the mainstream and underground scenes, Shearwater has endured and evolved to produce numerous creative successes. Jet Plane and Oxbow proves that rock can still support more than endless recreations of cherished old sounds and introspective banalities.
Of course, the album is still partly an exercise in period-piece revivalism. Specifically, Meiburg has said in interviews that Jet Plane evokes 1980. The opening of that disastrous decade certainly boasted a set of landmark musical releases that would define pop going forward. Peter Gabriel III introduced gated reverb to listeners in its opening track, Brian Eno and David Byrne produced one of electronic music’s blueprints in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, while the latter also released Remain in Light with Talking Heads. Jet Plane channels these influences in its use of analog synths, peculiar percussion instruments like rototoms, and, on tracks like “Filaments,” grooves that clearly nod in Byrne’s direction.
Beyond all these 80s stylistic signifiers, of course, is Meiburg’s writing and vocal delivery. His voice has always been dramatic and unnerving, his lyricism drawing on his scientific work with birds and ecosystems to produce songs that sweep over their subjects with broad brushstrokes. Like many rock lyricists with an interest in “big” subjects, Meiburg prefers a suggestive and indirect approach to songwriting, using words that are specific enough to affect listeners without articulating his own point of view in much detail. This is especially evident because his writing in Jet Plane is more overtly politicized than I can remember it being before. From “Quiet Americans,” we have this stanza:
“Shake the memories off, hide the evidence under
Piss on the world below
Like a dog that knows its name
Where are the Americans?”
It’s far from the Marxist particulars you would get from The Coup, Bambu, or Pete Seeger, but this is as explicit as the invective gets on Jet Plane. Meiburg clearly expresses his antipathy for American arrogance and entitlement, but carefully couches these thoughts to avoid sloganeering or calls to action. When he’s successful, he can produce remarkable results like this bit from the end of “Pale Kings:”
“You know how sometimes
You’re so tired of the country
Its poptones and its pale kings
And its fences like knives
But in the same breath
Your heart breaks with the feeling
With love and with grieving
For its irrational life.”
Spread out in the context of the song, with its dense production and complex rhythms, these words convey ambivalence and heartbreak. At other times, the vagueness can feel evasive, as if Meiburg is uncomfortable with naming names. Ambivalence is not necessarily a useful or even a beautiful or truthful emotion when protesting violent dispossessions and enclosures. More often than not, though, the songs work for me because I appreciate the way the songs contextualize these half-formed protests in vast landscapes. “Glass Bones” captures a shifting geography “anchored in rust, erasing the wilderness,” captures a sense of paranoia and loss connected to the environment. Nature has always been at the core of Shearwater’s work, and the words and music here are much better at capturing the awe and sad spectacle that define our current relationship to nature than they are at articulating our political situation.
Without overblowing its significance, I can say that Jet Plane and Oxbow is another strong release from Shearwater. If nothing else, it reminded me what intelligent and well-written rock albums can achieve given a bit of ambition, and I imagine I’ll be enjoying this album long into the year. As our bizarre winter winds itself down, maybe a calm spring will follow.