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"Winged Life"

Shearwater – Winged Life (Vinyl Reissue)
14 February 2012, 07:58 Written by Adam Nelson

In 2004, when Misra first released Winged Life, Shearwater’s third album, the band were still ostensibly a side-project for the prodigious talents of Okkervil River’s vocalist Will Sheff and keyboardist Jonathan Meiburg. In the eight years since, what reputedly began as an outlet for the pair’s quieter songs has blossomed into a unique entity of its own, and, with its three albums since signing to Matador in Winged Life’s aftermath, become at least the equal of its elder, folkier brother. Though the two acts are still linked, Winged Life remains the last album on which Sheff and Meiburg shared songwriting duties, and, in retrospect, cleanly marks the point at which Meiburg’s ability outgrew the confines of mere side-project.

Shearwater’s earlier albums, 2001’s The Dissolving Room and 2003’s Everybody Makes Mistakes, were uneven and inconsistent affairs. Though possessing a certain subdued charm, they were often more worthwhile as exercises for their writers than for the listening public. Sheff stuck most strictly to the band’s original remit, using Shearwater as a showcase for his quieter, more meandering numbers, which often owed more to chamber-pop than the alt.folk of Okkervil’s albums of the same time. For Meiburg, Shearwater was a place to find his feet, as both a songwriter and a vocalist. As both writers developed, their styles diverged, and for that reason Winged Life is both the best and most frustrating of their early albums in equal measure.

The set opens with Meiburg’s delicate and haunting ‘A Hush’, his best song up to this point, which bears all the hallmarks of his later work. It opens with a shimmering, off-kilter guitar line around which everything else builds. Meiburg’s voice, expansive and other-worldly, is as strong as it has ever been, his lyrics as cryptic and evocative.

The following track is Sheff’s ‘My Good Deed’, about a man who ends a relationship for the good of his lover, the kind of eloquently-spun folk narrative he was churning out for fun by this point. Taken on its own terms, ‘My Good Deed’ is a terrific song, but in context it raises a number of issues. Its gently strummed acoustic guitar takes the sting entirely out of ‘A Hush’’s orchestral crescendo, killing dead the momentum that Winged Life should have carried into its second track. Furthermore, Sheff’s lyrical style has always been literary, wordy, and observational; his songs are populated with characters and he attacks their consciousnesses with the eye of a novelist. It falls into jarring conflict with Meiburg’s poetic evocations of feeling, time, and place. ‘My Good Deed’ is, more than anything before it, an Okkervil River song in a Shearwater song’s clothing, and the pattern of these opening two tracks repeats itself across Winged Life, giving the piece more the feel of a compilation of cast-offs and b-sides than a fully-formed album, which does a disservice to both songwriters.

When reviewing reissues, hindsight always brings with it the temptation to attempt teleological readings of the songs, to search for evidence of prescience of what we now know was to come next. Eight years on, it is easy to interpret Winged Life as a clear end to the first phase of Shearwater’s existence, knowing, as we do, the milestone that it represents in the band’s career. ‘St Mary’s Walk’, a “breakup song” which takes the ocean as a motif for the troubled affair the protagonist forms, in particular foreshadows what would later become known as the band’s Archipelago Trilogy, a triptych of albums with a fixation on all things nautical, and may be a metaphor for Meiburg’s relationship with the band. There is also Sheff’s ‘Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine’: the meaning is pretty much surmised in its title, though it could arguably be read as a tract about Meiburg’s decision to take Shearwater off on his own. In truth though such readings are, if nothing else, boring and unnecessary. There was no big split between Meiburg and Sheff, no “creative differences”, just an acceptance of the fact that Shearwater was now developing its own identity, and both felt the need to focus on their own projects.

Given the inaccessibility of The Dissolving Room and Everybody Makes Mistakes, both of which are long out-of-print and ripe for re-release, it’s a shame that Misra are, for now, only reissuing this record. All three have merit for fans of either Shearwater or Okkervil, and would have made a fascinating deluxe set. A vinyl-only version of Winged Life feels like something of a missed opportunity. But just weeks away from the release of Animal Joy - officially Shearwater’s seventh album, but the fourth since their post-Winged Life re-birth and first since completeing the Archipelago Trilogy – this represents the opportunity to hear one of the best bands of recent years at a crucial stage in their development.

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