Jet Plane and Oxbow
22 January 2016; Sub Pop
Shearwater’s latest album has unusual beginnings – frontman John Meiberg came up with the title whilst in a 737, looking out the window at another plane flying over a horseshoe bend in the Mississippi. The image made a big enough impact on the Texan musician to name the album after it, and wallah, Jet Plane and Oxbow was born; the band’s eighth studio album (give or take a couple of compilation records), and second release off indie powerhouse label Sub Pop.
It’s an unusual way to come up with a title, but this is an unusual album – Shearwater, as always, eschew conventional songs topics on love and heartbreak to sing about something more unorthodox. The 2016 release is a social protest album; in it, Meiberg considers the darkness of “our dull silence, our disconnected lives”, whilst deliciously offset by overly lavish, upbeat musical arrangements (it’s all very ironic).
Shearwater are aiming to give off a near-cinematic level of musical scope
This album is a less gentle affair than their previous efforts; the progressive rock of 2008’s Rook sounds a million miles away from this year’s electronically embellished record. Meiberg has noted David Bowie (the one, the only) and Peter Gabriel as big influences for the new release, preferring 80s pop sounds to the quieter mystery of earlier Shearwater music. For bands to make such a big sound-transition often feels like a betrayal, (especially for a band already eight albums in), but it feels more like a natural development for the band here than a blind rejection of what has come before. Jet Plane and Oxbow is the band making a gradual tilt towards the mainstream.
In all fairness, 2012’s Animal Joy felt like it was already slipping into this kind of direction – and this is, after all, an album several years in the making. Meiberg et al have been recording the record for two years, and you can hear the fruits of their labour. Their music is more meticulously layered than ever, with carefully layered synth rippling over heavy drumbeats. It’s richer – thicker, even – than the type of music that first won Shearwater acclaim, with flurries of different instruments chiming in on different tracks, many of them brought in at the hand of Brian Reitzell, film composer and percussionist. (Lost in Translation, The Bling Ring, The Virgin Suicides). The band’s decision to recruit Reitzell highlights the new flair of ambition Shearwater have poured into the production of this album; just as Bowie and Gabriel before them, Shearwater are aiming to give off a near-cinematic level of musical scope.
Shearwater seems unable to completely tug themselves away from their gentler past
The album’s lead single, ‘Quiet Americans’, is a prime example of the band’s newer sound. The lyrics are as complex as ever (“the guns in silhouette / are only sound, are only light”) – musically, though, this doesn’t feel like the strongest song on the record. For all its electronic jitters, it’s still a bit slow to pick up; you feel like you’re waiting for a crescendo that never quite delivers. The flurrying drumbeat of the next track, ‘A Long Time Away’, however, has a better rhythm to it, especially with its throw-in chimes. Promotion for this album’s release heavily emphasised the new “loudness”, but for all the flourishings of synth and hefty drum-rhythms, Shearwater seems unable to completely tug themselves away from their gentler past, resulting in a sound that is complicated to define.
‘Backchannels’ is a quietly haunting track that seems out of place when cushioned between the much heavier ‘Prime’ and ‘Quiet Americans’; the album’s tender closing track, ‘Stray Light at Clouds Hill’, is similarly preset by ‘Radio Silence’, one of the liveliest songs on the record. None of these tracks are bad songs, but the dallying between one and the other doesn’t quite work.
Sure, the songs on Jet Plane and Oxbow are good (and Meiberg’s lyrics are as complex as they are wonderful) – but they’re not extraordinary. This new release isn’t far enough away from Animal Joy to be a total musical reinvention, but it’s still a far cry from the quiet majesty of 2008-era Shearwater. This album is a slow burner, and the songs get better the more you listen to them – still, I’m not convinced this is their finest effort.
Read our interview with Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg here.