Claiming that your album represents what living on an island is like is a move that could easily find you deep into hokey hippie territory. So it’s something of a credit that Shearwater’s The Golden Archipelago ends up providing at least a rough sketch of what we can assume life is like on a string of islands: There’s rain and a lot of water, and the sunsets and sunrises are probably pretty awesome. But this is the album where Shearwater’s temporal-rock ambitions get the better of them; too much of The Golden Archipelago plays like transitory film-score pieces meant not to connect with listeners but to provide one part of a bigger picture that is never provided.
Not to say Golden Archipelago doesn’t have some knockouts. “Black Eyes” — for my money the band’s best track — finds the middle ground between the musicians’ inclination to go grandeur and the more no-frills rock of Jonathan Meiburg’s former band, Okkervil River. “Eyes” is still blown out to the max (the rollicking piano clashes with jackhammer drums while guitars float in the background), but it proves the benefits of trimming things down to three minutes and change. Brevity is something of a trend here, as the similarly short but more martial “Castaways” benefits from the same svelteness. While it could have been blown out to bigger proportions, the song’s impact near the middle of the album is felt harder thanks to its shortness. The dulcet tones of “Hidden Lakes” are another highlight: It takes but 20 seconds to realize this is the track meant to represent a traipse through the jungle to find a waterfall (or something else that happened on Gilligan’s Island).
The rest of the album is dominated by short mood pieces that create a setting more than anything else, including providing a firm payoff. The beach is here (“Runners of the Sun”), and so are the foggy mountains (“God Made Me”) and the crashing waves of the ocean (“Uniforms”). These pieces aren’t bad in and of themselves, but they don’t have the kind of thrust and sense of purpose that made these kind of open-air orchestral tracks work so well on Rook. Without the threat of squalls of feedback (like on Palo Alto) or serious climaxes (like on Rook), most of Golden Archipelago ends up as beautiful as the cover of the album, but with as little context.
Golden Archipelago is reportedly the third album in a trilogy Meiburg cooked up, so this might be the last go-round for this expansive form of Shearwater. The one thing linking the albums for sure (at least beyond the thinnest of environmental thematic ties) is the idiosyncrasy of Shearwater’s bombast. The only other style of music I can pin this to is the evangelical church hymns — although you’d be hard-pressed to find songs about island living that have a slight smidgen of an R.E.M. influence in your copy of the hymnal.