Shearwater Made a 'Compassionate' Protest Record at the Perfect Time
Echoing what most of the country evinces in the current political climate, Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg feels a certain ambivalence. Election season, he notes, “is when the nation’s id comes screaming out of the attic and into the streets. [Beliefs] go from undercurrents to overcurrents. The reality is, you realize how much of this stuff has been present all the time.”
For Shearwater’s January-released Jet Plane and Oxbow, which brings the band to the Mercury Lounge on February 6, Meiburg channeled that uncertainty into what he bills as "an oblique protest record," which for Shearwater mostly abandons the nature-inspired landscapes (Meinburg is also an ornithologist and writer) and personal reflections (see Shearwater’s last album, 2012’s Animal Joy) of the group’s past catalog in favor of a bold, socially charged confidence.
The project, somewhat ironically, was inspired by a David Bowie interview, in which the recently deceased legend described 1980's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) as a protest record. "I went back and listened to it more carefully and thought, 'Holy shit! It really is,'" Meiburg says. "I thought it would be rewarding to make a record like that. I wanted to write a record about the conflicting feelings we all have about being citizens of the United States. I wanted to probe some of the pathologies that seemed endemic, and to do it from a position of really liking the country, which I do. I wanted to make a protest record that was also compassionate."
Jet Plane and Oxbow is indeed a more pointed record for the Austin-based Shearwater, which began as a collaboration between Meiburg and Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff in the early 2000s as an outlet for the songwriters’ quieter, more reflective music. Meiburg continued under the moniker after Sheff departed, releasing Shearwater’s critically acclaimed Island Arc trilogy, which encompassed the albums Palo Santo, Rook, and The Golden Archipelago.
Shearwater — still recognizable as ever for Meiburg’s soaring vocals and knack for gorgeous melodies — is a band invigorated by the group’s latest effort. Songs like the synch-charged anthemic first single, "Quiet Americans," are among the strongest evidence of Meiburg’s newfound quest for understanding, as a lyrical sleight of hand subtly changes the question "Where are the Americans?" to "And whither the Americans?"
"Filaments" likewise calls into question the concealed intentions of society ("Some people run from themselves/Some chain the dogs to the gate/Some are living a lie") over a chugging bass line, while Meiburg mines his own psyche on the introspective "Backchannels."
"It’s about trying to handle a voice I’m not alone in hearing sometimes. A lot of my friends who are in music or the arts also hear that voice that tells you you should probably just kill yourself," he says. "I wish people would talk about it more honestly; it would make it feel less personal. But that’s part of what that song is about. It kind of falls to pieces in the middle and rebuilds itself."
Musically, Jet Plane and Oxbow takes its cues from 1980 — that year specifically, "not 1985," Meiburg notes. "Not 'cause I think the Eighties are cute or funny — I was only four in 1980 — but it was an interesting time. When you look at media from that time, there's a sense of technology. Tech is about to change everything, but nobody knew how. It was very terrifying and exciting. We’re in a very similar moment now," he says.
Meiburg and producer Danny Reisch, who also lent his touch to Animal Joy and Shearwater’s covers album Fellow Travelers, began work on the new album more than two years ago. To capture the sound of the era, they recorded with instruments and devices from the time period, such as Linn drums, and composer Brian Reitzell — whose scoring credits include The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, among others — was brought in to give the album its cinematic feel. "He was just a mad scientist," Meiburg says of the collaboration. "I wanted the record sonically to have a depth more associated with a movie than being just a rock album."
Another goal with recording, Meiburg notes, was to pay closer attention to how the songs would transfer to a live setting — already an area of strength for the renowned live band and one that’s bound to transform with the group’s approach to the new music. Of Shearwater’s upcoming Mercury Lounge show, he notes that while the group will be "awesome," it also feels like "half-gear" (it’s only show number three). The group returns in March for a show at the Bell House, which Meiburg says will have a few additional surprises — plus lasers.
Also in the works for Shearwater’s live sets are covers of songs from Bowie’s Lodger throughout the tour, which Meiburg says was in the works before his passing. "We’d been working on the songs and obsessively listening to that record and trying to figure out how it worked and if we could play it, and when we heard that he died, for a moment we thought, 'Should we still do this?'" he says, adding that the songs feel particularly meaningful for a New York audience. "Then we thought, 'Fuck yes, we should still do this.' It’s made rehearsing the songs really moving in a strange way."
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