You know, there was a time not too long ago, the major-players of the indie rock world – your Merges and Sup Pops and Barsuks – made albums like Jet Plane and Oxbow with great regularity. One could argue they still do, but people just care less.

Sometime between 2006 and 2008, in the era of The National and Spoon and Okkervil River and The Arcade Fire and White Rabbits, sort-of rocking, mature, appropriately-earnest, high production mid-tempo rock music was the order of the day. These records, Boxer, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, The Stage Names, Neon Bible and Fort Nightly sounded different from each other, but shared some key DNA; they eschewed the notion of making guitars the main focus of their music, hanging their songs on pianos, keyboards, drums, augmented tones and pitch shifts – new-folk songs dressed in rock music’s clothing. Individual tracks stood out, but these albums were more settings for literary-minded lyrics and explorations of abstract moods and feelings than they were hit parades. They were, in essence, experimental music presented in the most populist and approachable way possible. These were albums about ideas as much as they were about anything.

This isn’t to suggest that Shearwater’s latest wouldn’t stand out in that time period, or that it is dated or reflects nothing of the world around it. Rather, it is meant to highlight the record for what it is in the larger 2016 musical landscape: an uncommon blessing.

In an interview leading up to the release of the album (handily provided by the good people at Sub Pop), Shearwater frontman Jonathan Meiburg describes Jet Plane and Oxbow as a protest record, but never gets into the specifics of what is being protested. That vague sense of pushing against something great and unkillable permeates the record; the world the album creates is one of oppression and noble struggle, where only small, meaningless victories are possible. “Pale Kings,” with its stuttering snare drum and strummed chorus, feels like the moment of freedom that comes with escaping something terrible and breaking out into the sun. Later, “Wildlife in America” — which sounds like the piano coda to “Layla” fleshed out and turned into a stand-alone song — feels like the surrender of someone reclaimed by captors.

The album’s theatricality, due in equal parts to the Meiburg’s lyrics and the multi-instrumentation of film composer Brian Reitzell, makes it feel like it was recorded with live performance in mind. For all its varied parts, – the layers of midi synth, the handclaps, the various guitars, the programmed and performed drums – this is an album that sounds like it was written to be played live, in front of screaming fans, like a small-scale U2 concert. Meiburg sings like he is prepared for the stadium, especially on the groovy “Quiet Americans” and the lofty “A Long Time Away,” which are easy to picture being performed at your local amphitheater. It makes the record feel like it is dying to be shared, makes it compelling to listen to. It ratchets up the urgency, the idea that something is happening here, that the whole is so much more than the individual parts.

The gamble in dealing in abstraction is loss of message. The more one drives for “feeling,” the more risk of signal noise, the more risk that what is trying to be expressed gets lost in the shuffle between artist and audience. Jet Plane and Oxbow is a record that sits next to you and tries to explain itself. Even if you don’t fully understand what it’s saying, you’ll understand that it is serious. You’ll be swayed by the passion, even if the message remains unclear.

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