To being with, it’s strange that the world depicted on Shearwater’s new album feels like a world at all. Jet Plane and Oxbow doesn’t share much genetic material with a concept record. It doesn’t come with a connective thesis or a symbolically directive album cover.
But since the album arrived in January on Sup Pop, I’ve felt its intense images — conjuring both a desolate hell and its oases — were occurring in some sort of dome. Shearwater’s latest is big to be sure, but there are boundaries to its lushness and contours to its busyness. With the help of instrumentalist Brian Reitzell and producer Danny Reisch, the rock band has fervently decorated this album, but never going so far as to puncture its skin.
Maybe the feeling of thematic wholeness comes with frontman and songwriter Jonathan Meiburg sounding like he’s singing at something, a set of characters or visions he doesn’t map, but in his remarkably pure baritone belong in the same troubling vista: a child who won’t put down a gun, multiple references to suicide by drowning, calling Jerusalem “a dirty old town that some killing made holy.”
And that’s how you come to pound the sand having your Planet of the Apes moment. The land depicted, with its expansive shadow, natural beauty and death drive, is this one.
With Shearwater’s ninth record, Meiburg says he’s made a form of protest record set in contemporary America. Having evolved dramatically from the band’s early folk roots, Jet Plane and Oxbow aches and simmers in its soundscapes, the deep and darkened melodies occasionally lit up by the fluorescence of digital flourishes. Take it in live this Saturday at Mississippi Studios. (Find tickets here.)
Earlier this month, I caught Meiburg on the phone at home in New York City where the band was hours away from performing David Bowie’s Lodger in full at Rough Trade record shop. Meiburg said morale was high so long as they could nail the tricky vocal cues on “Yassassin.”
From there, we dug into Jet Plane and Oxbow.
* * *
ELEVEN: I’ve read you talk about the idea of Bowie and the oblique protest record and how that applies to your new record. Before I read anything about it, the lyrical idea that kept jumping out at me was: one set against the world, or one set against the abyss. “Only child.” “Only sound.” “Only light.” Then, when I read you talk about the album’s relationship to American-ness, I thought that could come up a couple different ways spatially or philosophically. Where does that motif come from?
Jonathan Meiburg: Well, see this is exactly the reaction I wanted you to have, so I don’t know how much I want to explain it to you. Because then you’ll just be left with my interpretation instead of yours.
To me, this record felt every bit as personal as the last one, Animal Joy, but in a different way. This one is more about seeing yourself in context. And about probing some of the pathologies in what I think of as the American psyche. To the degree that there is such a thing. Every country has its problems … but because we’re still so powerful, all of our flaws are projected on a really grand scale.
11: So in relation to my question, might one of those pathologies be hyper-individualism?
JM: Yeah, individualism does have a dark side, but it’s also responsible for some of the really appealing energy of the country. Everything with a dark side also has a light side, which is part of the theme of the record to me. If I was just railing against the U.S., that would be pretty easy and kind of boring. The problem is I grew up drinking the water; I can’t escape my own American-ness. How we all wrestle with that on a day-to-day basis is part of the feeling I wanted the record to evoke.
11: Do certain elements of what you put into the record feel amplified or more trenchant with the election cycle happening?
JM: I felt like I could almost see something coming on the radar somehow when I made the record. Which is not something I feel that great about. In a way, I would have loved for the record to be more irrelevant than it turned out to be.
11: [Laughs.] But here we are.
JM: But here we are. And in a way I think the jury is still out on the United States. There’s such possibility in it still. There’s such goodness and energy, but you can also see these currents within it, that it’s just so eager to destroy itself. What’s bizarre, of course, is that the Trump supporters would say the exact same thing, just in the opposite.
11: That’s really smart. I hadn’t thought about that. So before I read anything about this album, I did have the feeling that there was a consistent world depicted here. With its own contours and shapes and properties. I think a lot of that can be attributed to you being a lyricist who zones in a lot on images and senses and details. How did you come to be drawn toward that side of lyricism?
JM: What I’m aiming for usually in songs is not to explain something. You can do that in an essay. It’s more to create an emotional state. This is what art is supposed to do — to get beyond the realm of words. If you could explain all this stuff, there’d be no reason to make a record.
Which is part of why I love it! I mean, it’s a pain to do all the stuff required to do music … I’m writing this book right now and in the contract there’s a little clause where you agree to do a couple weeks of promotional appearances. “What, you mean like go to a bookstore and read? This is a piece of cake!” So yeah, it is so satisfying when it works to drag all these people and all this gear across the country to perform in front of people.
11: With the soundscapes, so many people have said nice things about the breadth and depth of what’s going on sonically. If you were to sit down and listen today, where do your think your ear would be drawn?
JM: Boy, I’m really not the right person to ask. When you’re working on a giant project it becomes gigantic, like you’re shrunk down wandering through this forest. But no one else listening has that experience. Everyone else is normal-sized. One of the things we had fun working on with [multi-instrumentalist] Brian Reitzell was the percussion elements that sit in the very top of the range, little shakers and bells and triangles. They’re a texture you don’t consciously notice all that much. But because they’re the only thing sitting up in those ranges, they seem to make it sound much bigger.
11: So what are you trying to get away with live as you’re touring the new record? Are you close to replicating it?
JM: We’re getting fairly close, trying not to be too slavish about it. We are using some backing tracks where it seems necessary on things like, for instance, that arpeggiated figure that starts the record. You could have someone play that, but it’s fiendishly difficult and you wouldn’t get any points for them doing that. But that said, we did assemble some tracks and then discard them, because the live sound of the band was better. The last thing you want is the feeling you’re watching a band do karaoke. The live show is more unhinged than the record, more raw power and jagged edges. It’s one of the best live lineups I’ve toured with, if not the best.
11: One of the things you’ve said and I’ll quote you: “The more anthemic the songs became, the more ambivalent the lyrics became.” I know that comes from not wanting to make a preachy or annoying protest record, but the way you phrase it there makes it sound like it happened organically. Was that the case? Or was it more intentional and thinking about the record you didn’t want to make?
JM: You just … you know when something is dumb! With these songs, there existed a version of the song that would be terrible. So the question became: How can we take this energy and not ride it over the cliff?››
– Chance Solem-Pfeifer