Exploring The Golden Archipelago–Explanation, Motivations, Disclaimer and Confession

12 03 2010


let the audience rise/let them file through the halls/still assured in their lives/until the sky shudders open/impossibly wide/and the room glows in the sudden light/and they are gone/

There is a thing [something there is that doesn’t] that cannot let go–once captured I keep digging.

they are gone for life

It might be a photograph, a sculpture, a piece of music, a film–whatever it is, I worry it until I  am satisfied or, rather, not feeling that constant itch, constant discomfort.

the waking world

Better for me than sitting and listening, than simply staring, is sifting through.  Looking for the radial lines, so to speak, that are the weft and the warp, the piercing, of any real art.  Done with the knowledge, and the fear, that once I tug at any piece of art, its shape for me is changed forever.

the good of mankind and to end all world wars

It is because I want to know those meridians and their intersections that I am subjecting Shearwater’s new album The Golden Archipelago and the co-created Dossier to my own scrutiny.  In some ways the album, with its beautiful but allusive lyrics, and the Dossier, with its carefully arranged photos, notes and excerpts, openly ask for digging.

We will go believing that everything is in the hands of God.

However, my own motivation, though colored by a desire to study the album (as with any interesting music) and to see through the allusions, is more personal.

I have enjoyed Shearwater’s previous albums–especially the first two in the trilogy to which The Golden Archipelago belongs (Palo Santo and Rook).  Certainly, these albums have spurred me to explorations.  But, at least until now, these explorations have been, like other albums I’ve listened to compulsively, private and kept inside my head.  This is to be a public, textual, exploration.

And here’s a disclaimer:  I am not a musician and will not be exploring explicitly the instrumentation and the mechanics of the music.  You can visit the many reviews (for example, BBC, Austinist, Pitchfork,  for this information).  Better yet, buy the album and go see the band live (they are currently about to tour the US and their energy, commitment to the music and clear connection to one another make Shearwater’s live shows pretty fantastic).

the world blooms

The album and Dossier most overtly reflect on Jonathan Meiburg’s (Shearwater’s lead singer and songwriter) year spent on a Thomas J. Watson fellowship studying “community life at the ends of the earth”  e.g.  Tierra del Fuego, Kowanyama in Queensland, the Chatham Islands and  Kimmirut in Baffin Island. [This album and prior work, also reflect his Master’s work on the biogeography of the straited caracara (a phenomenally cool bird, in fact, nearly as cool as California quail)].

lay the little bones

among the reeds

If you haven’t guessed by now, the album and the Dossier make me itch, at least in part, because they emerge out of a place of research and exploration. In the album and the Dossier the strands of an individual’s singular “research” (and I use this term with hesitation, because it does not encompass) experience becomes a realized piece of art in the world.  This piece of art–the music certainly, but also the Dossier, are the transcendence of the concretized nature of experiential geographical studies (including anthropology and biology) into that which manifests the physical, metaphysical and (as with all true studies of the diversity of humans and nonhumans) disappearing nature of the “in the world” experience of all of those others.

the hangman hangs on the gate,

the hammer sinks in the sea

Meiburg has said in recent interviews that the path of research does not satisfy an aspect of his experience in the way that art does–a getting at the mystical sense that the places he has visited across the world possess.  This expression is something as important as the collection and quantification of data (though not in direct opposition–here is something to remember for later).  For example, in the New York Times he says: “I pursued art further because it’s better equipped to answer some of the questions that science can’t.”

that all-pervading sense of exile

I understand this on a visceral level.  I am a capable scientist and can find joy in the studies.  But at the end of the day, the research is never enough, and never captures what is sheer ecstasy and despair in other places other organisms, moments and spaces where history, grief, and life intersect.

they have gone/they have gone from life


And, as they say often in yoga practice, at the level of the ego, I am fucking jealous.  I cannot simply listen to the album, look at the Dossier and put it away.   It is something realized in a way that I, to this point have been incapable of doing.

Indeed, something that is so realized I am neglecting my own work, what I might create and refine (though my talent always feels lacking always always), to try to trace the lines traversing this work.


I will, perchance, actually explore the work (rather than my own ego) in the next few posts.  We will see what time and energy allow (and children and chicken and parrots and cats and and).  But, here are things to whet your curiosity.  Directly, the album and Dossier  touch on the evacuation and exiled status of the residents of Bikini Atoll (1946), the Mitchell River Mission in Queensland Australia, Gunther Plüschow and the Feuerland, Isla de los Estados and the striated caracara. (Indirectly…or no where but in my mind…youll see…)

When one goes away,….

He must feed the fish his bread

and mix a drop of blood into the sea


quotes from Shearwater, Robert Frost, King Juda, Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, Jonathan Meiburg, Ingeborg Bachmann, Charles Simic




One response

13 03 2010

What a cool idea! You’ll have fun with it, I’m sure. I completely relate to your jealousy, by the way.

I look forward to reading more.

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