Neil Young’s first group in Winnipeg was called The Squires. They originally played instrumentals, with The Shadows being a huge early influence. (In fact when Neil recorded a song called “From Hank To Hendrix” on “Harvest Moon”, everyone assumed the ‘Hank’ was Hank Williams until Neil explained that the reference was actually to Hank B. Marvin!). However, one day, he decided that he wanted to add some vocals to one of the songs. After it was over, the rest of the band were looking at him in a very peculiar way and when he sked them what the matter was they asked “Neil. What made you want to sing in that voice?” An example would be the title song from “After The Goldrush” where his falsetto voice gives him “a sensitive world weariness” as Edward Miller described it in his essay “The Nonsensical Truth of the Falsetto Voice”. When Neil Young is interviewed and speaks in his “normal” voice, it’s hard to believe that he sings like he does.
I was thinking about why I love Neil Young’s voice and what the appeal is when a male singer uses a falsetto voice. Edward Miller’s essay is largely about Sigur Ros and the first song I ever heard by them, on a compilation sent to me by a long lost friend, was “Svefn-g-englar” which features some beautiful falsetto singing by Jonsi. There are several examples of male singers using a falsetto voice. One of the best is “Fix You” by Coldplay where Chris Martin sings in a falsetto voice for most of the song as it builds to a pitch of excitement before a coda where the instrumentation quietens and he uses his “normal” voice to sing “Lights will guide you home and ignite your bones and I will try to fix you” as the song ends. Or how about the climax of “Stairway To Heaven”? Or “Crazy Love” by Van Morrison where he only decided to use a falsetto voice just before recording? Another great Van Morrison song sung in a falsetto is “Who Was That Masked Man” off “Veedon Fleece”. Or Jimmy Sommerville. And I’m not going to mention Tiny Tim. (Whoops, now I have).
I don’t want to quote great chunks of Edward Miller’s essay but the most pertinent point is this. “In moving to the higher register, men do not necessarily sound female. Transposing one’s voice to the head from the chest, does not remove the body from the voice. The voice retains a “physique.” Its sound suggests a shape and this shape is neither necessarily hermaphroditic nor pregendered. The contours and muscularity of such voices can be quite sexually enthralling rather than freakish.”
Jonathan Meiburg earned an English degree before receiving a fellowship to study daily life in remote human communities, e.g. the Falkland Islands, Tierra del Fuego, the Aboriginal settlement of Kowanyama in Australia, the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, and the Inuit settlement of Kimmirut in Baffin Island, Canada. He is an avid ornithologist and the Shearwater name and various song and album titles contain references to birds. He joined a group called Okkervil River in 1998 but left in 1999 to form Shearwater. They have released 17 records; “Rook” is their 6th release from 2008. It’s fantastic. However, Roo hates it, largely because of Jonathan Meiburg’s falsetto voice.
“On The Death Of The Waters” starts very quietly with just his gentle voice and a piano accompaniment. Half way through the song explodes into a loud instrumental 60 second break before finishing with more unaccompanied piano. What an uncompromising way to start a record.
“Rooks” is a little more up tempo with an insistent keyboard riff as Jonathan Meiburg sings “When the rooks were laid in piles by the sides of the road/They were crashing into the aerials, tangled in the laundry lines/And, gathered in a field, they were burned in a feathering pyre/With their cold, black eyes.” No, this is not easy listening. Although the instrumentation is fairly jolly with a lovely trumpet solo, the timbre of his voice is deeply unsettling.
“Leviathan, Bound” has a wonderful melody. His vocals are accentuated by a dramatic string arrangement. It’s a busy, full sound. When he sings “As his heart, though weakening/Still is racing/Still is racing, alone”, he is so emotional that he nearly shouts.
“Home Life” starts with the piano riff and first line of “You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push The River” from “Veedon Fleece”. More unsettling vocals; more beautiful strings; more emotive clarinet. Like “On The Death Of The Waters”, the instrumental break builds to a loud climax before the last two minutes end the song in relative calm and stillness.
“Lost Boys” works in the opposite direction. A very quiet opening 90 seconds before drums kick in with a minute of full arrangement topped by Jonathan’s strange voice. “Century Boys” is even shorter at just over 2 minutes and is much louder. “You are not the last of this house/Nor the first to go over the side/Remember the wrecks of those elegant ships/“Turn it off!/Turn it off!”/Look with century eyes till they make you go blind” Answers on a postcard please.
The constantly changing dynamics on this record combined with the interesting arrangements and the strangely eccentric falsetto voice of the lead singer ensure that the careful listener will come to love it.