When Will Sheff branched out from Okkervil River in 2001 in order to exorcise the need for "quieter material", probably neither he nor fellow riverman Jonathan Meiburg foresaw their Shearwater sideshow nestling on equal terms with their beloved day job in the future.
Nevertheless, a few years later, the sprawling and magnificently indulgent Palo Santo plucked the pair's endeavours from obscurity to win them critical plaudits. Its successor, Rook, confirmed the streak amid equally gushing praise, and The Golden Archipelago is now looking like following suit even though Sheff has now returned to Okkervil River full time.
The equal parts epic and introspective folk-rock that Meiburg has at his fingers is enviable in any guise, and his dramatic vocal is again striking, lacing the The Golden Archipelago project together with sufficiently unhinged and pining baritones in places, falsetto led laments in others.
The album opens in Dawntreader-like opulence as "Meridian" swells, emerging from a frosty fog. Its soft but determined percussion provides urgency. Its piano echoes are clean and crisp. Next, "Black Eyes" is a rousing moment of power, a challenge laid not to the elements but seemingly by them. The widescreen nature of the track and corroborating battle cry put forth by Meiburg hint at Sunset Rubdown's sense of epic, the nymph-like backing choir duly shiver and shy in compliment.
Elsewhere, the results aren't quite as stirring but still play their support role well, twinkling and lapping as appropriate. However, the pace is quickened for the galloping "Corridors", which crashes amid Meiburg's dynamic straining. He pleas, expounds and emotes in wide-eyed reverence. The climax of "God Made Me" reprises these crashing waves, and "Castaways" hits with surging power. Meiburg here fights the good fight as the menacing percussion evokes a brewing storm and distant thunder. The calm though is duly restored by "An Insular Life", an altogether more soothing offering that paints an idyllic existence on far flung shores. The Golden Archipelago exits gently, crying out of shot with the effectively melancholic "Missing Islands".
Following an aquatic theme, and buoyed by promotional dossiers consisting of photos of remote islands, it was clear The Golden Archipelago was never going to be an average collection of superficial platitudes. And Meiburg does not disappoint, providing sufficient anchor against a rising tide of ankle-biting contemporaries.
Shearwater have created a serious album and one dealt with beautifully. There are few entry points to the album's depths except at the opener "Meridian", and few exits except at its closing moment. The Golden Archipelago flows from beginning to end majestically, its water cool and powerful, waters in which it is more than easy to be swept away.