Kathleen Edwards: “Voyageur”
I’ve always liked Kathleen Edwards, and what I particularly like about her are her voice and her songs– the same two things, I suppose, that attract me to most of the musicians I love. I did not really care, when Asking for Flowers came out, that the Canadian singer/songwriter was being billed as a sort of country/roots rocker, pitched somewhere between Tom Petty and Sheryl Crow, or that her album had Benmont Tench and Greg Liesz on it. I cared that she was a ferocious performer, expressing naked emotion through funny and irreverent songs but never obscuring their frayed and hopeful hearts. I also liked her girlish voice, especially when curse words and John Fogerty references were coming out of it. I thought, and still think, that she could make the scrappy, knockout album of her career by cutting a bunch of songs on the ragged and folksy tip, like “Sure as Shit,” with perhaps a couple of dust-kickers like “Oil Man’s War” thrown in as well.
Not that I have any interest in dispensing career advice; her new album, Voyageur, is quite good, and quite different from what I might have thought she would or could do, so clearly Edwards is on to something. I bring up the last album, though, simply to say that the new one is a departure, and one that some fans may not be as enamored with. As for me, all the things I’ve always loved about Edwards are still here. The songs are terrific and the voice is clear and true as ever, so it matters little to me that she has drafted producer Justin Vernon, who sands away the grit and gristle and makes this into what I guess we’ll call Kathleen Edwards’ pop album.
It is not pop in a conventional sense, nor in a saxophone-drenched Bon Iver sense. It is pop because there is little here that could be called roots-rock, and nothing that smacks of country, or of Tom Petty. The songs are melodic and have snappy, propulsive rhythms, even though many of them are minor-key and the whole album is reflective and atmospheric. There is a sort of 80’s pop ambiance, though not in any heavy-handed sort of way. Nothing here recalls the soundtrack to Drive, in other words. But there is something ethereal about it; Voyageur is awash in after-hours echoes, Edwards’ songs more confessional than ever but not lacking in attitude and wit. The songs remain folk songs at their core. Edwards remains ferocious.
And all of that’s fitting for an album that reminds me a bit of Lisa Hannigan’s fine Passenger— not in any sonic sense, but just because it’s an album about travel, both literal and metaphorical. Both albums have one-word titles that denote people prone to movement, and both have maps on their front covers. Edwards is writing about transitions, fresh starts and painful beginnings. Her characters are in conflict with themselves and with others, and the thought of a change in scenery is both promising and terrifying. The best song might be the first one; in a reversal of the typical stateside threat to move to Canada, Edwards’ narrator softly pledges she’s “movin’ to America” before admitting it’s likely an “empty threat.”
This is twilit introspection rendered with humor and deep emotional barbs; why, Edwards’ promise to follow her lover anywhere sharpened considerably by the very title of the song in which it appears (“Going to Hell”). Other highlights include a lovely, wrenching ballad co-authored by John Roderick of The Long Winters, called “A Soft Place to Land,” and an epic closer, “For the Record,” where Edwards almost goes full-on emo in comparing the artist to the crucified Christ (but for the record, she “only wanted to sing songs”). All of this would sound pretty good no matter how it was presented, I think. Edwards is developing a sonic vocabulary that is distinct to her, and Voyageur sounds to me like it’s as accomplished as anything she’s done.