…but actually, it’s a bit richer and stranger than that. Okkervil River turns out to be only one side of a peculiar and interesting coin. I knew all along, vaguely, that Sheff had a side project, Shearwater, and that I would probably check it out at some point. But I wasn’t in a big hurry. Finally, on impulse I bought Palo Santo, which was originally put out in 2006 but had just been re-released on Matador in entirely new packaging with a bonus disc and with some key songs actually re-recorded, apparently to be bigger and better. Didn’t know what to expect, exactly, but I understood Shearwater to be some kind of sedate folk outfit—an outlet for all the songs not rockin’ enough to make it onto the Okkervil records.
This, to put it mildly, was not correct.
To begin with, Shearwater isn’t really Sheff’s project, not any more at any rate. It began as a joint endeavor of Sheff and Okkervil River keyboardist Jonathan Meiburg, but as Okkervil has gained attention, Shearwater has become almost entirely Meiburg’s child—and it turns out to be a wild, naked child, with leaves in its hair and an alarming expression. Okkervil River build their serious adult tunes over what’s essentially a traditionalist folk-rock framework, but Shearwater is pure art-rock—song structure and catchy tunes be damned. Meiburg doesn’t have any use for any of my traditional record-review cliches: he’s passed right over Evocative and Gripping and gone straight for Mythic. It’s still pianos and strings and horns, but Meiburg’s defiantly eerie singing—in the Buckley/Yorke tradition, but creepier—is foregrounded throughout. (If you listened to The Stage Names, that’s Meiburg’s feral wail in the background of the “Sloop John B” coda—“in the way I had planned…”)
And what’s he singing about? Well, honestly, you’ve got me, but it sounds like something very important—which for this sort of thing is what really matters. This kind of record has to work, if it’s going to work, by suggestion and misdirection and esotericism. Whether it’s Ok Computer or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea—and if you know me, and you see me using those comparisons, then you’re going to sit up and pay attention—this kind of Epic Rock has to successfully seem to create a separate world, a world where something deeply signifigant is happening, even if we can’t quite tell what it is. And like Jeff Mangum’s mysterious private language on Aeroplane, Meiburg’s lyrical space is shot through with grief and loss, with missing and dead children, with grieving parents, and with a kind of elemental terror of nature, of the ocean and the sky. (The lyrics aren't printed, but apparently they were printed in the original European release, and this guy has helpfully transcribed them, if you're curious.) Palo Santo starts quiet, with just piano and an almost whispered vocal—“Something is breathing in the air / Something is moving in the water / And the winds in you are blowing.” Maybe a little unsettling, but at this point you could be excused for thinking that you were listening to a Pretty Record, if you’re even paying attention. Then, out of dead silence, a blood-freezing howl, “Bring back my boy!” And the song starts to stutter into life, but now you know that it’s real, that enormous things are apparently at stake. The stirring, scary “Red Sea, Black Sea” begins with a sinister banjo (not enough sinister banjo in the world!) and one insistent pounding drum—then Meiburg, deadly serious, tells us that “In place of the sun, In place of the moon / A terrible light will flood every room.” Something terrible is happening; this is Apocalypse Folk. Later, on “Nobody,” we hear that “the bombs finished falling / and ashes were drifting along the roads.” (This, along with the constant veiled presence of fathers and sons, makes me think both of Aeroplane and of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. That novel may have come out too late to be an influence, however.) Birds and the ocean are everywhere, right from the alarming cockatiel on the cover—in fact, though I initially thought that “Shearwater” was just a mysterious, evocative name, Wikipedia will tell you that it’s the name of a kind of seabird—one that lives longer than almost any other bird. The sea is terrifying—“That splintering wave takes so many lives / And now your hands are gripping the edge of such a waste,” on “Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five.”—but you can’t get away from it. And when all else fails, give a nod to The Tempest: “Took me out on the tide / To make pearls of my eyes,” in the monumental “White Waves.” (Of course that could be The Tempest by way of “The Waste Land.” There’s a thesis waiting to be written on how T.S. Eliot Rocks—pretentious singers just can’t help bringing “Prufrock,” or “The Hollow Men,” into the conversation, and I love them for it. Would have appalled the grouchy old bastard, however.)
This all probably seems a bit over-the-top. It’s just a proggy overserious chamber-folk-rock record, after all, without any of the luminous tunes of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, or the wit of a Decemberists record, say. But this feels like the Real Thing to me, a work of genuine vision, even if, like Aeroplane it is never successfully followed up. And then, put it alongside Black Sheep Boy, and it starts to seem like we’re looking at something Big, even if only a few of us ever know about it. Meiburg and Sheff have arrived at a peculiar symbiosis which is turning out to be incredibly fruitful. We’ll see which of them can come up with the next masterpiece. What rough beast slouches toward Austin to be born?