Every other Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.

Put aside for a moment that the getaway-car rush of guitars in the song you’re about to hear sounds familiar; soon enough, I’m going to argue that the resemblance of Shearwater’s “Pale Kings” to another arena-rock anthem is appropriate, perhaps even deliberate. But let that go for now, and just catch these lyrics:

You know how sometimes
You’re so tired of the country…?

YES!

Oh, I’m sorry. Did I just shout that out loud? I didn’t mean to interrupt. Let’s try this again:

You know how sometimes
You’re so tired of the country
You could run to the ocean
And surrender your life…?

This song has my attention right now…because I do want to run to the ocean. I do want to get away from it all, escape the endless headlines of struggle and strife, wash all of the politics out of my head, listen to the wind and the waves and start again.

And yet…well, look at the rest of the verse:

But in the same breath
A light burns through your dreaming
And blows holes in the ceiling
Till there’s nothing but sky

I can relate to this experience—this careening between despair and hope, anguish and inspiration. And I know I’m not alone in this whiplash life, this season of extremes, when prayers and praises sung on Sunday morning give way to campaign-season panic on Monday:

Run out
Like a ribbon unreeling
Head down and careering
Colors drained from your life

But listen
Just the sound of your breathing
Blows the cover of silence
Blows the cover of lies
With incendiary light

In this song from Shearwater’s new album Jet Plane and Oxbow, there is a strong, unifying thread of uniquely American contradiction: There are stories of characters who hide away behind wires with their guns and their fears. There are ugly portraits of a nation full of “disconnected lives,” crippled by a “dimmed conscience,” guarding itself with “fences like knives,” and having a tendency to “piss on the world below.”

And yet hope keeps breaking through—a vision of a better world, streams of fresh air through pollution, rays of starlight through darkness:

You know how sometimes
You’re so tired of the country
Its poptones and its pale kings
And its fences like knives

But in the same breath
Your heart breaks with the feeling
With love and with grieving
For its irrational life…

Yeah, I do know.

And so it seems perfectly appropriate to me that this song rides the same kind of high-speed guitar riff as U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” a song about how we keep on “building then burning down love”—and an appeal to that impulse that urges us to “reach out and touch the flame.”

Hope keeps breaking through—a vision of a better world, streams of fresh air through pollution, rays of starlight through darkness.

In fact, the strength of Shearwater’s ninth—and, according to most reviewers, best—album is how it recaptures the most unifying and inspiring sounds of ‘80s rock and re-contextualizes them for a new time, a new generation. Critics can’t seem to decide who this record reminds them of most: U2? Tears for Fears? The Thompson Twins? The Waterboys? Peter Gabriel? Me, I hear Echo and the Bunnymen, Bruce Springsteen, Simple Minds, and—yes—David Bowie.

And, as in so many of the social-justice anthems in the ‘80s, there is a bold appeal in these lines to the better angels of our nature—to the courage it takes to put away hostility, lay down weapons, forgive, and take a risk in the name of love.

I’ve kept an eye—and both of my ears—on Shearwater as their identity has evolved, album by album. There’s been an element of fantasy in everything from their album art to their spacious art-rock sounds. But frontman Jonathan Meiburg has never sounded so urgent and inspired as he does now. His songs have a fierce, percussive energy that make it easy to imagine the whole record working well in both a club and an arena. Producer Danny Reisch layers each track with surprising textures and transitions, but I suspect that the bright, dreamy sounds throughout come from collaboration with Brian Reitzell, who has worked on the soundtracks for several Sofia Coppola films.

Interviewed for Sub Pop by Michael Azerrad, Meiburg says he set out “to make a protest record that wasn’t dumb or preachy. […] [T]he more grand or triumphant the songs sounded, the more conflicted the lyrics became, which I really liked. I listened to it the other day for the first time since we mastered it and it reminded me of a breakup letter—the kind that’s furious and tender at the same time, because it’s written with love.”

If Jet Plane and Oxbow is a “breakup letter,” then it’s about breaking up with an American culture gone wrong. And yet, there’s never outright condemnation or despair. “I can’t stop being an American, even when it makes my skin crawl,” Meiberg says. “I also can’t help loving it here, even though I hate it sometimes, too. […] So in the end, I guess, the record felt like a way for me to send out a little beacon that just says ‘You’re not alone.’”

What may become the album’s most beloved track—a powerful ballad called “Only Child”—is one of those beacons into the dark, a song driven by compassion rather than condemnation. In it, Meiburg paints a picture of a character whose father set a tone of trouble and fear, whose world is isolated and insecure:

I see you never lay the gun down, only child
You live your life behind a window, only child…

The song concludes with a call for the anxious child to break the self-defeating cycle of fear:

Forgive them
When you lay the gun down, only child, it’s not surrendering—
Only you know how

Bringing this journey of self-examination, soul-searching, and surrender home, Meiburg closes the album with a poignant visit from T.E. Lawrence, whom Meiburg describes (in Exeposé) as “a person who indulged and then recoiled from heroic national and personal myth-making.” After being caught up in the zeal of British imperialism, Lawrence withdrew from modern society and got back to nature, so to speak, in a Dorset cabin called Clouds Hill.

In an interview at Drowned in Sound, Meiburg said, “Lawrence is interesting to me because he had gone out and sort of achieved this boyhood dream of recreating a scene from the Crusades, shaping the world, and then he came back to all this fame and found he hated it. In some ways he spent the rest of his life in a retreat from that, you might even say a penance.”

The song “Stray Light at Clouds Hill” rises on the sound of wind, but moves into a quieter and more contemplative space than any other song on the record. It finds the singer looking back with misgivings on his life as a conqueror, as if at the end of the journey that began in “Pale Kings”—or, for that matter, in “Where the Streets Have No Name”—he recalls how he “jumped over mountains” and “vaulted the islands,” but now his “armor is frozen” and his “eyes are a glittering stone.”

The last lines on the album are haunted by both glory and terror: “Oh mama… / The light is so bright / The dark is so dark.”

It would be easy to read this as despairing end, as the last testimony of a ruined man. But I find this conclusion hopeful. It suggests a traveler who is wiser with experience, and who is turning—if only intuitively—away from a world that we make to our own liking, and turning toward one that was made for us, one that whispers to us of who we are and to whom we belong.

“I wasn’t anyone’s son,” our narrator sings as the song begins—and so he does not depict himself as a prodigal. But creation is a language that still speaks to us of our Maker. In that sense, while he may not recognize his father, the singer has found his way home, found his way to the threshold of the garden. He still hasn’t found what he’s looking for, but I get the sense that he’s still looking. Perhaps that’s why the song gets to me—because, well, frankly, so am I.

Shearwater is bringing their Jet Plane and Oxbow tour to Seattle in March. I’ve got my ticket. It’s easy to think that if these songs, performed live, sound anything like they do on the record, they could blow the roof off and transport the crowd in a way that I haven’t seen or felt since the rise of Arcade Fire. This election year has only just begun, but I’ve already found one record that will help me keep a hold on hope and vision.

You can, for now, listen to the whole record on this Sub Pop stream:


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