Review: Shearwater’s The Great Awakening (Polyborus)

Austin indie institution’s latest feels like a far-off summer lightning storm: all low rumbles punctuated by occasional flashes of grandeur

Review: Shearwater’s <i>The Great Awakening</i> (Polyborus)

Six years ago, Shearwater delivered a terrified and pulsing personal-political manifesto so urgent it practically demanded to be scrawled in Technicolor blood on highway overpasses throughout every exurban hellscape in a country full of undecided voters clueless that their MAGA-sized indifference would pop the cork on a four-year populist American tragedy. Jet Plane and Oxbow, chock full of dark vibes, torment, and teeth-clenched vitriol, found the band as grand and compositionally ambitious as ever, riding far outside its familiar creative art rock lanes with loads of synths and New Wave dance rhythms that took musical and thematic inspiration from David Bowie's "I'm Afraid of Americans" claustrophobia.

Pack up and stow away any expectations that the tragicomedy of the Donald Trump presidency or the two-year strain of the COVID-19 pandemic would cause primary songwriter Jonathan Meiburg to venture further into the world of agitprop on The Great Awakening, which sounds like a retreat into the fragile intricacy of past records in its best moments, though the bulk of the album's nearly hourlong run time lulls with fragmented song ideas and half-formed melodies.

From the first notes of album opener "Highgate," it's clear we're back in the vein of the band's Island Arc mode of restrained, slow-building songs, with Meiburg deploying his falsetto atop a funereal piano and strings, singing, "Here comes your heart attack/ Starless and Bible black," and winning the 2022 award for least-expected King Crimson reference on an indie rock album. That low-intensity start never gives way to much else before stopping abruptly in under three minutes, which winds up as something of a plus since it's one of the few tracks here that doesn't overstay its welcome.

Meiburg follows that up with the barely there, existential quandary dirge of "No Reason," asking the listener, "How do you fall in step with all this speaking?" at the end of a song with 82 words total.

The primary frustration with Shearwater's 11th album of new studio material (and there are many) is that, too often, Meiburg seems to have sheathed his normally reliable lyrical pen, stringing together scraps of imagery, impressionistic declarations, and other ephemera that do almost nothing to help these frequently plodding songs cohere into anything with meaning. We hear this most clearly and alarmingly on "Milkweed" with its almost seven minutes dominated by Meiburg's ghostlike vocals atop a thudding bass drum and not much else as he intones, "Warm bodies/ Tungsten/ Radium/ Hexane/ He enjoys it." Not sure if anyone comes to a Shearwater album itching to hear industrial solvents used as a gasoline additive name-checked in a song, but for all of you who do, track No. 7 is your playground built on quicksand.

Finishing around for a few high points, "Empty Orchestra" gets a lot of mileage out of a keyboard burble and multitracked Meiburg singing with a rare sense of urgency. It's a song that could've been at home as a B-side on an expanded Record Store Day reissue of Jet Plane and Oxbow, which itself is an indictment since for this go-around artistic scraps qualify as the prime cuts.

Through it all, The Great Awakening feels like a far-off summer lightning storm: all low rumbles punctuated by occasional flashes of grandeur that tease something major awaiting without delivering a single drop of anything with impact.


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