Shearwater spreads its wings on remarkable Rook

We’ll be lucky to hear a record this year more fully realized or rewarding to contemplate than Rook.

The fifth full-length from Shearwater, and the first since vocalist-guitarist Jonathan Meiburg parted from Okkervil River to pursue his side project as a full-time concern, Rook mesmerizes both musically and thematically. Perhaps most remarkable is that it takes only a slight yet unhurried 38 minutes to do it.

“That’s the length that records used to be,” Meiburg tells the Straight from a tour stop in Los Angeles. “Sgt. Pepper is not much longer than that. Not that I’m comparing the two, but the thing that’s wonderful about that record is that it does summon up this whole musical world with its own rules, boundaries, and palette, from the get-go. And when it lets you go you feel very satisfied. That’s really all that a record should aspire to be, you know?”

Much has been made of Rook’s brevity, especially in view of its dense arrangements of piano, guitar, upright bass, percussion, and other less conventional sources of noise. Within this sonic structure is a masterfully drawn cosmos of birds, man, and nature in upheaval, a premise that’s established in the song “Rooks”, with its vision of an avian holocaust—a “feathering pyre” that’s relieved only when “the world of man is paralyzed.”

Gradually, nature’s indifference to humankind (“Oh, yes, nature doesn’t care about you at all,” Meiburg cackles down the phone) comes to dominate the record, explicitly in the sleepy “I Was a Cloud”, where the singer tenderly observes a sparrow but is unimpressed with man’s “frantic waving”.

That sense of nature not caring is also there when the vocalist’s grit-free choirboy voice takes on a sudden, startling fury as he describes the heart of some unnamed beast, pierced by a bullet but “still racing”, in “Leviathan, Bound”. Humankind’s fidelity to destruction is lamented in the gentle seven minutes of “Home Life” and the deceptively spry album closer, “The Hunter’s Star”.

“I feel that it’s important musically that if you have a subject that is real heavy, sometimes it’s good to balance it out with a lightness in the music, or vice versa,” Meiburg offers, about that last track. “Good and evil are here at any moment, and any slight perturbation of the surface can reveal either one of them.”

If all this makes Rook sound dire or misanthropic, it shouldn’t. When a violent burst of drums and screaming guitar invades and then just as quickly recedes from the hymnal-quiet opener, “On the Death of the Waters”, it suggests something as natural and cyclical as the tides—a process rather than an “apocalypse”.

“That’s the word that keeps coming up, but the more I’ve thought about that, the more uncomfortable I get with it,” Meiburg says. “It’s not like some new world is suddenly gonna arrive. We’re making it right now, and that, far more than some great event, or the revenge of nature, is what I’m trying to get at in the album. The old world is inexorably passing away, and the new one that we’re in the process of creating is arriving.”

Shearwater plays Pemberton Festival on Friday (July 25), and in-store at Zulu Records on Saturday (July 26).