Shearwater – Rook (2008)

shearwater_rookI’ve said elsewhere that 2008 felt like a write-off as far as music was concerned. As far as a lot of things were concerned. Even now, five years hence, I don’t feel like I emerged from it with any definite favourite albums (although about three do appear in this project), whereas 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 feel littered with them. Even the records that I do like from 2008, I feel like I have odd relationships with.

Someone wanted me to hear Rook. I’d never really heard of Shearwater before, only tangentially heard of Okkervil River, the band Jonathan Meiburg (Shearwater’s leader) started out in. Stylus had ceased publishing, and I’d pretty much given up on writing about music. I’d pretty much given up on music.

I’ve just searched for it, and couldn’t find it, but I’m pretty sure I got an email from someone, a publicist or someone at a record label or someone, asking for my address and offering to send me an LP copy of Rook. Maybe I imagined the email? I’m pretty sure I replied, with my address, but saying that I currently had nowhere to write about anything, and that I’d pretty much given up anyway. I think they replied saying no matter, they just wanted me to hear Rook anyway. An LP arrived in the post. Maybe it just arrived by magic and the email exchange never took place? I’m beginning to doubt my memory now.

Actually, I just found these posts on ILM:

Never heard of these dudes before but Matador sent me the 12″ apros of nothing, with a download card, and I’m just on my first listen now – I must say I can see why they sent it me; I’m loving it so far and can only see my affection for it growing.
― Scik Mouthy, Thursday, June 12, 2008 10:08 AM

Man, were they right to send it to me.
― Scik Mouthy, Sunday, June 22, 2008 5:05 PM

Which explains it a little. I’m still sure I got an email though; otherwise how would they know where to send it?

I assume whoever it was who wanted me to hear Rook knew about my love of Talk Talk and my crusade against dynamic range compression and badly mixed and mastered records, because Rook bites hard from the legacy of Talk Talk’s final two records, and Mark Hollis’ solo album, and is beautifully recorded, making use of pounding and dramatic dynamic shifts as emotional fulcrums. There’s more than just Talk Talk at play, though; there’s a big hint of folk-rock, a sense of Kate Bush, a whisper of Final Fantasy (Owen Pallett, not the video game), Scott Walker…

Meiburg has an undergraduate degree in English literature, which shows in the poetic allusion of his lyrics, but also a postgraduate degree in Geography, with a dissertation entitled “The Biogeography of Striated Caracaras (Phalcoboenus australis)”. The striarted caracaras is a bird resident on the Falkland Islands, where it’s known colloquially as “Johnny Rook”. Meiburg spent a year observing remote human communities before enrolling for his masters. I’m not sure what this means. His voice is an incredibly mannered and performative thing, powerful and delicate.

I listened to Rook a lot as I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and they became tied together in my mind, not as close parallels but as vague allusions, thematic links, impressions of disaster and extreme emotion. Rook resolves itself, though; the piano chords and vocal melody on the final song, after the traumatic, too-brief-but-just-right climax of “The Snow Leopard”, with the horn, that blast atop the mountain, calling over the guitars, the drums, the double-bass, the spaceship noises… and then nothing, and then these really gentle chords and this delicate, melancholy, but uplifting melody… it’s like the guitar-as-sunlight-breaking-clouds intro to “New Grass”, but sweeter, less desolate. The world hasn’t ended and been reborn, as in Laughing Stock, but… perhaps humanity has left it, and nature has gladly taken over again?

I don’t often revisit Rook, for various reasons. It’s a special record, of the type that doesn’t seem to come along too often – self-contained, mysterious, beautiful, powerful. It feels religious but isn’t; it’s about birds, and love, and, quite possibly, impending environmental disaster. The cover art seems to try and construct a wider mythology for the music somehow. The music constructs its own mythology very well. It’s one of the few saving graces of 2008.

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