Shearwater’s 10th label-backed LP, Jet Plane and Oxbow, transports the listener to a tangled world solidly rooted in the ’80s. Jonathan Meiburg’s voice is deep and deliberate, and the songs borrow Kraftwerk’s synths, the percussion of Devo and Talking Heads, and Brian Eno’s limitless layering capabilities. In adopting those traits, the Austin outfit have reached a new height.
The album’s powerful, grandiose sound brings Shearwater the closest they’ve ever been on record to their live performances. Composer/music supervisor Brian Reitzell (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and 30 Days of Night) has a hand in that; his textural contributions lend an energy and focus to the tracks.
While Shearwater are largely emulating the sounds of decades past, they never sound stale. Jet Plane and Oxbow can’t be locked into a single place or time, instead patching together its own alternate past. They leave room for their glossy influences and the gritty present to communicate with each other, threading catchy hooks through more complex backgrounds. The prime example is “Quiet Americans”, a dark track that transforms relatively quickly into a comfortable earworm.
“My idea for Jet Plane and Oxbow was to try to make a protest record that wasn’t dumb or preachy,” Meiburg explained in an interview with Sub Pop. “But the more grand or triumphant the songs sounded, the more conflicted the lyrics became, which I really liked.” That conflict and contradiction runs through what it means to be American, especially in today’s current sociopolitical climate. While no album can completely capture that fusion of bleak and hopeful, Shearwater’s version is compelling.
The album is at once a blithe daydream and a haunting nightmare. Lyrically, it’s almost as if Smiths-era Morrissey traded places with Meiburg sometime after 2013’s Fellow Travelers. That dichotomy comes out sonically as well — take the lingering, echoed vocals and shadowy bass lines of “Filament”. As the album comes to a close, both Meiburg’s vocals and arrangements fall to the softer side, as if trying to find an answer to the conflict. “Only Child” begins his search for resolution, one he doesn’t reach by closer “Stray Light at Clouds Hill”. Though it might not find a taut conclusion, Jet Plane and Oxbow’s ambitions and confidence are enough to keep that from sinking the album.
Exorcising the political demons of being an American is a difficult task, especially while simultaneously searching for the sonic intersection of today’s indie rock and the synth-fueled ’80s. That otherworldly sound may be fully established in another decade, but even by coming close, Shearwater pull off a real feat.
Essential Tracks: “Quiet Americans”, “Filament”, and “Only Child”