The work of reclusive biologist and nature writer Alistair Graham may seem like rather unlikely inspiration for a rock album, but then again, Austin's Shearwater is no ordinary band, and lead singer Jonathan Meiburg is certainly no ordinary tunesmith.
Graham's 1973 collaboration with photographer Peter Beard, Eyelids of Morning: The Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles and Men, is something of a holy grail (it's currently out of print) for nature buffs like Meiburg, a "semi-retired" ornithologist whose studies have taken him to far-flung locales like the Galapagos and Falkland Islands. In the book, Graham details his three-year study of crocodiles at Kenya's Lake Rudolf, relating their cultural importance to the African people while at the same time deriding conservation ideologues that "cherish a fantasy of communion with a mysterious nature."
"It's basically about wildlife management in East Africa and the ways that man's fantasies are played out under the name of wildlife conservation," says Meiburg, who also cites his own study of the Falkland's striated caracara (aka Johnny rook), the work of nature writer Peter Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard, The Tree Where Man Was Born, Blue Meridian, etc.) and Yazoo Records' ethnomusicological smorgasbord The Secret Museum of Mankind as inspiration for the band's latest, Rook.
Recorded at the Echo Lab just outside of Denton, the album is easily the band's tightest and most accomplished set yet, an orchestral art-rock record that plays like your favorite PBS nature doc—pristine and delicate one minute, savage and bloody the next.
From the near-title track "Rooks" ("And the ambulance men said, 'There's nowhere to flee for your life,' so we stay inside/And we'll sleep until the world of man is paralyzed") to the full-throated rocker "Century Eyes" ("You were not the first to arrive/And will not be the last to survive"), the album is full of dark skies and richly sinister imagery, though Meiburg is quick to shy away from the term "apocalyptic."
"That word is already getting overused these days," he says when asked about the album's thematic thread. "People are worried. It seems like things we used to depend on, like seasons, are suddenly up for debate a little bit...
"I think the end of the world is mostly a fantasy that people have indulged in as a way of relief from what's actually going on, which is endless change without much of a beginning and without much of an end. I think people long for an eschaton, some dramatic event that will end everything. I don't think that's in fact what's gonna happen; I think things are just gonna keep changing. And the record is, in some ways, a way of trying to address that and acknowledge that and, just for me, kind of come to terms with it. Especially having worked on these studies in these really out-of-the-way places and seeing little brief glimpses of the world as it was before we were everywhere, eating everything. And that world is almost gone, and it's gonna continue to disappear."
Fortunately, like Alistair Graham, Meiburg has returned from the ends of the earth bearing gifts, collaborating with his band mates—including bassist Kimberly Burke, wonderfully strange percussionist Thor Harris and former multi-instrumentalist Howard Draper—to forge something beautiful and intricate from the knowledge that the world as we know it is, in many cases, not built to last.
With Rook, however, Meiburg and Co. may well have created a remarkable exception.