Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg has a tendency to write albums with a clear thematic vision, and that same artistic instinct guides this eclectic collection of covers.
As a graceful and contemplative songwriter, Meiburg tends to approach humanity from the perspective of the natural world. On The Golden Archipelago, he used islands to reflect on human exploration, discovery and fear of the unknown. On Animal Joy, he confronts instinctual responses to panic, chaos and threats.
Here, as a curator and interpreter, Meiburg presents a carefully selected set of cover songs to reflect on his life as a traveling musician, the yin-yang between long, isolated drives and the immediacy of performing in front of hundreds of people. But more than an album about the touring life, it’s about Meiburg’s kindred souls, his fellow travelers.
Selected from bands that Shearwater has toured and performed with, the songs by and large have lyrics of restlessness, yearning, exploration and motion.
On display in Meiburg’s renditions is an intimacy with the songs, an intimacy built from two components: the fellow performer who understands the rhythm of the road and the stage and also the friend who can see the songwriters’ own personalities wrapped up in their creations.
There’s a difference in a musician simply choosing songs he likes for a covers album and making his selections based on the personalities behind the songs. By focusing on the empathetic and often symbiotic relationship of bands on tour together, Meiburg’s interpretations come from how he sees performers off stage as well as on.
Reverence in cover songs doesn’t always mean faithfulness to the arrangements and feel of the original. Only on The Folk Implosion’s “Natural One” does Meiburg go for a complete recreation.
With the exception of the album’s opener, the soft piano ballad “Our Only Sun,” the overall sound of Fellow Travelers leans more toward the chaotic rock ‘n’ roll of Shearwater’s latest, Animal Joy, than the band’s airier, more delicate recordings, like The Golden Archipelago.
Meiburg writes in his album notes that he sees a common sense of purpose in the musicians he covers. The creation of the record itself is guided by the same ethic. Guesting throughout are Meiburg’s “fellow travelers,” the musicians he’s selected to cover, making their own artistic contributions to the songs of others.
Xiu Xiu’s frantic, razor-sharp “I Luv the Valley OH!!” becomes a booming epic, with guitars nearly blowing out their amps and Cully Symington bashing out desperate drum beats.
Coldplay’s “Hurts Like Heaven” and “Natural One”—the only hits covered on Fellow Travelers—receive opposite treatments. Shearwater entirely transforms “Hurts Like Heaven,” stripping away Coldplay’s unlikely burst of incandescent pop in favor of a ringing piano rendition. “Natural One,” with Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner on backing vocals, is a direct reading in homage to Lou Barlow’s original.
Playing up the hooks on St. Vincent’s “Cheerleader,” Shearwater (with backing vocals from Jesca Hoop) transforms the edgy and claustrophobic original into a straightforward rocker, cranking the guitars and turning up the distortion.
One of the album’s strongest moments is the not-quite cover, “A Wake for the Minotaur,” an unadorned yet gorgeous ballad that rejoins Shearwater with Sharon Van Etten, the band’s one-time tour manager.
Shearwater takes Wye Oak’s “Mary Is Mary”—7:35 of slow burn and explosive release—into a somber, dark corner, finding a quiet despair in the wreckage left behind by the original version.
Similarly, Shearwater sheds the scruffy, lo-fi charm of The Baptist Generals’ “Fucked Up Life,” turning the song in a more meditative direction, aided by members of Clinic on drum machines, radio signals and organ. And by placing the song as the album’s closer, Meiburg seems to admit that touring is itself a bit of a fucked up life, but one he obviously wouldn’t trade.
“Touring is an expression of faith—in yourself, in your friends, in the hope that the world has a place for you,” writes Meiburg in the album’s introduction.
That expression of faith also underscores the relationship between touring musicians and their audiences. For whatever other purpose songs are written, they’re also meant to be heard. On Fellow Travelers, Meiburg shows his friends that their songs have been heard, have made an impact. He captures the songs, reshapes them in his own way, and throws them back out into the world again.