From Lost to Cast Away to Robinson Crusoe to The Odyssey, islands have played out in human stories and art as meditations on journeys, discovery and how people respond to the frightful unknown.
The title and deeply evocative cover art of Shearwater's new record, The Golden Archipelago, not to mention the expansively spooky music, signal a new exploration on those ancient themes.
"Islands figure so much in people's imaginations, but they're very fragile in the real world and subject to great changes in short periods of time. When I thought about the title, I thought of a place that was extremely fragile, that was disappearing," says frontman Jonathan Meiburg. "There'd be moments of joy and wonder, but also moments of isolation and fear."
The cover image of a lone cloaked figure, silhouetted against a glowing sun and rowing toward a rocky, green island, suggests just that. And songs like "Castaways," filled with images of "lost worlds" and "hollow flags" and the relentlessly rising tide, work to fill this rich and complex album with a yearning for that unspoiled utopia of an island.
"This is a very old literary and artistic fascination that people have, I think because islands are a way for people to project their fantasies about how they would remake the world if they could," Meiburg says. "They're so completely bounded by the ocean that there's somehow a notion that you could build a world on an island that you could contain and control."
The Golden Archipelago opens with the national anthem of Bikini Atoll, sung by people living on the island of Kili, where they've been exiled since atomic tests 60 years ago left their home uninhabitable.
"Everybody feels this sense of a longing for a home that we can't ever return to," Meiburg says. "In that anthem, there's a sense of loss and despair, but also this weird kind of joy in the performance that, at least for the duration of that song, they can achieve a victory over their own exile. That's what I wanted the record to achieve."
As an ornithologist (shearwaters are long-winged sea birds), Meiburg has extensively traveled for field research, visiting some of the world's most captivating islands: the Falklands, Tierra del Fuego, the Galapagos, Madagascar, Nunavut and New Zealand's Chatham Islands.
"I've always been intrigued and attracted by the special joys and challenges of island life for people, but also for plants and animals," Meiburg says. "I've spent several months at a time living on islands as part of research projects, and the longer I stayed there, the more mysterious they become."
That so much of the natural world has found its way into Shearwater's music is hardly surprising, given the eerie and beautiful sound, led by Meiburg's vocals, which flit between a commanding tenor and airy falsetto. Meiburg, a one-time member of Okkervil River, left to concentrate fully on Shearwater once the band began garnering more critical attention with 2006's Palo Santo. The stalwart Matador Records has been the band's home since.
The Golden Archipelago, Shearwater's sixth record, is the realization of what the band has been progressing toward, Meiburg says, with broader and deeper emotional and sonic textures.
"Artistically, we've made a thing that's the most whole album we've ever made. It flows nicely from one thing to the next, and it adds up to a greater whole piece," he says. "This album is a little less easy to dissect or consider as individual songs. Even though it's not like The Wall or Tommy, it's the kind of record that's most effective when you listen to the whole piece."
Shearwater—Meiburg on guitar, Thor Harris on drums, Kimberly Burke on bass and touring multi-instrumentalists Jordan Geiger and Kevin Schneider—is a band both instantly recognizable to those who've heard the music before and exceedingly difficult to categorize.
"When people ask, 'What kind of music do you play?' I'm still stumbling over the answer to that question," Meiburg says. "We used to have a couple of songs where I'd play the banjo, but I got really tired of being photographed with a banjo and being labeled a folk band. The songs don't sound like what most people would think of as folk music at all. Even though I love that instrument, I had to put it away."
On the current tour, Shearwater plays most of The Golden Archipelago, and in the live context, those songs—dense and slowly revealing on the album—become more immediately apparent for the listeners, Meiburg says.
"I don't know if I've made a record out of step with (a) singles-driven environment, but if that's the case, then I'm proud of that," he says. "Anything different is more rewarding."
After the tour closes, Meiburg says, he plans to spend time in tropical South America as a research assistant, fulfilling the needs of his scientist side, but also, in a way, serving his musician side as well.
"Things like that recharge your batteries artistically, because it's so separate. That's where you can really draw your inspiration," he says. "With this record, I've mined some of my past experiences as much as I think I want to, and it's time to rack up some new ones."