It’s been a long time since U2 really conjured anything other than annoyance. It’s been nearly two decades since All That You Can’t Leave Behind rekindled some of their initial spark and the group have spent the better part of that time grandstanding, bungling misjudged album launches and releasing music that limps into obscurity months after release. So with the old vanguard falling by the wayside, it’s high time that somebody took up the position and started leading the charge. Shearwater, the brainchild of multi instrumentalist and lead vocalist Jonathan Meiburg, have spent the guts of the last decade finely honing their blend of indie rock and folk music based on the bedrock of Meiburg, smoother than butter with a depth and weight that seems at odds with their owners’ demeanour. With their latest LP, Jet Plane and Oxbow, the group has pushed away from the more intimate, cerebral songs of their past and opted instead to operate in that same range that albums like The Unforgettable Fire and Rattle and Hum cornered so long ago. While the results are mixed, the fundamental strength of Meiburg’s vocals and of the group’s songwriting ability carries the record to a happy plateau.
The intent of the record seems clear from the outset: marry Shearwater’s folk balladry with the sweeping pomp of mid 1980s synthpop. Their targets for assimilation are terribly evident: Simple Minds, The Blue Nile and most prominently Talk Talk whose use of dynamism clearly inspired a great deal of the proceedings as evidenced on the frankly excellent album opener ‘Prime’. At times this marriage leads to the creation of some truly spellbinding songs. ‘A Long Time Away’ has this fantastic verse fueled by a grumbling, charged synth that drives itself into a thumping bombastic chorus, while ‘Radio Silence’ achieves a similar trick but gravitates towards the Springsteen school of thought. But it is on ‘Only Child’ that the planets align and the album gets its real star track. Everything is here: Meiburg’s delicate and intimate vocals perfectly counteract the full soaring scope of the album’s influences and create a truly special four and half minutes. Sadly though, the record isn’t able to sustain the fire that ‘Only Child’ conjures. There are further decent cuts, but mainly what is taken away from them is not their collective whole but these little flickers of genius that flutter in and out. Constantly being tantalised with greatness lends the record a frustrating edge that mostly devolves into a sense of tedium. Lyrically, the politicism that inspires most of the record doesn’t stand out a great deal and the majority of what is said is lost in the beauty of the voice that sings them.
At its best, with its politicism and mixture of roots rock and electronic music, it plays out like some of the more exciting cuts from U2’s late 80s work, but for the most part the record struggles to carve itself out any kind of identity. It’s a solidly crafted piece from a band who are willing to try something new. Will Murphy