This year I’ve found myself listening to Shearwater more than just about any other artist, so it was a great pleasure to take my preferred front centre spot at the Szene for what was, remarkably, their third concert in Vienna in as many years (see here for my review of their 2012 visit). Some groups, and Shearwater are one of them, tour so frequently that you can’t help but admire their dedication. The received wisdom goes that groups have to tour in these days of rampant downloading in order to make money from music. But as Shearwater’s singer and songwriter Jonathan Meiburg recently wrote, “Touring is like the rest of American life – only the famous bands make money. The rest of us are doing it for some other reason.” (As an aside, Meiburg once asked people on the group’s Facebook page if they could guess how many copies of their recently released album Fellow Travelers had been sold; the answer was a mere 1500.)
No, it seems to me that touring is what you need to do to form a bedrock of support and goodwill in the world, and it’s certainly what initially made me a fan of Shearwater. As mentioned above, though, I’ve also been playing their records an awful lot this year, particularly 2008’s Rook, 2010’s The Golden Archipelago and 2012’s Animal Joy. The first two of these seem to go together in my mind, consisting as they do of spare, brooding art rock that draws you in with its haunting imagery and restrained instrumental colours. (“An Insular Life” from The Golden Archipelago is my favourite song from this period, a stunning cinematic masterpiece in three minutes.)
Animal Joy was something of a departure for the group, more urgent and direct than its predecessors but no less compelling for all that. And in “You As You Were” and the near-title track “Animal Life” the album contained two of the most potent and dramatic rock songs I’ve heard in many a year. This music is so good that it makes me want to grab everyone I know and make them listen to it, so convinced am I of its dazzling, diamond-hard brilliance. (Since the new one, Fellow Travelers, contains only one Meiburg original among a rash of cover versions, it’s a fairly inessential addition to their catalogue.)
It seems to me, in fact, that there is no-one else in rock doing anything remotely like what Shearwater are doing except for my one great musical obsession, Peter Hammill. This isn’t a comparison I make lightly, but it’s one that makes sense to me given Meiburg’s sharp intelligence, rich voice and gifted way with words, not to mention the grand ambition of his songwriting. In other words I find this music completely spellbinding, from Meiburg’s soaring vocals via his remarkable texts to the way the songs ebb and flow from peak to challenging peak. Shaped by gorgeous melodic touches, the songs speak eloquently of memory, violence and the precarious relationship between human and natural worlds.
Live, Shearwater are a fearsomely powerful outfit, with Meiburg’s up-front guitar and keyboards bolstered by energetic percussion and, well, more guitar and keyboards. Between songs he is witty, relaxed, yet always riveting. His spoken introduction to the song “Home Life”, in which he tells of looking out of his bedroom window as a boy and seeing the lights of radio towers in the distance, is both evocative and strangely moving.
After an enthralling main set, Meiburg returns to the stage alone for a stark solo reading of the anguished “Hail Mary”, slashing furiously at his guitar as his voice echoes around the hushed room. Finally the group send us home with an exuberant cover of Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain”, a fun way to end the evening for sure but one that feels almost too lightweight in comparison to the epic scale of what has gone before.