With Jet Plane and Oxbow, the eighth Shearwater album, Jonathan Meiburg set out to make a thoughtful protest record while also paying tribute to the sounds of experimental rock of 1980 and artists such as Peter Gabriel and David Bowie. His goal was to "explore what seem to be the various pathologies that lurk beneath the surface in the United States," he said of the album when it was released in January. Those pathologies didn't stay submerged this year, however, and Jet Plane turned out to be perhaps the most unsettlingly prescient record of 2016.
"It is funny because sometimes you make an album or any work of art, and it's like it has longer antennae than you, and picks up on things that you're not conscious of, and knows things that you don't know consciously. I think that happened on this record, for some reason," Meiburg said by phone from Austin, Texas. His Brooklyn band's tour has a stop Saturday at Underground Arts.
"That changed that idea in a big way, too," said Meiburg. "It went from being this kind of wacky stunt that I'd hoped he might hear one day and, instead, became this really heavy, but also very affirming, celebration of a particular album that I love that's not an especially famous one."
Jet Plane is the most visceral of Shearwater albums, eschewing the softer, ruminative trappings of the days when Meiburg was a member of Okkervil River. It still showcases his dramatic, soaring voice, ranging from the pulsing beauty of "Only Child" to the edgy anger of "Pale Kings."
The songs often find him wrestling with what it means to be an American. In "Quiet Americans," he sings: "I can't help it, if all the world is ending, if all the life is gone / Still, you're calling out this name: Where are the Americans?" In "Pale Kings," he sings: "You know how sometimes, you're so tired of the country, its poptones and its pale kings, and its fences like knives. But in the same breath, your heart breaks with the feeling, with love and with grieving for its irrational life, right now."
Songs that seemed speculative when Meiburg had finished the album in early 2015 now seem topical.
"I thought that the meaning of 'Quiet Americans' was somewhat obscure when we made it, and now it seems very obvious. Or 'Pale Kings,' which I used to introduce by saying it was about surviving the election season, but now, unfortunately, it just seems about life."
"It's all puppies and kittens from now on! No more darkness. I'm not going to mention any people, influences, animals, or objects by name. It's all just verbs and adjectives."