The joy – or pain, depending on your state of mind – of an artist like Kathleen Edwards is that there’s no filter between her emotions and her music. Everything is laid bare, ready to be divulged by those willing to risk the listen.
Such is the case with her fourth LP, Voyageur. It’s a refined, seasoned effort, alternating between country-tinged folk and leisurely paced rock. It’s also co-produced by everyone’s favourite indie recluse, Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver, aka Edwards’ rumoured beau). Those seeking Vernon’s trademark ‘alone in the woods’ sound are likely to be disappointed, however. It can be spotted in flourishes, but only to compliment Edwards’ open-canvas narrative.
Giving Voyageur its assured feel is Edwards’ subtle vocals. Not once does she attempt an ‘aw shucks’ grandstand ovation moment. Her voice is measured, flowing snugly within the ambient pacing of the album. Most of all, it is convincing, providing the ideal vehicle to carry her bevy of often downbeat feelings.
Opener Empty Threat gives all the indications that Voyageur will be an easy listening affair. Complete with ticking clock and glistening acoustic rhythm, it swoons with the kind of ease reserved for driving down a seaside highway with the top down. It’s not until the chorus where Edwards sings “I’m moving to America” but quickly retracts with “it’s an empty threat” that we realise the Canadian native has lulled us into a false sense of accessibility. From thereon most of the remaining tracks force us to pull over, wind up the windows and listen in with far more intensity.
The slow moving sparseness of Chameleon Comedian and Soft Place To Land reinforce Edwards’ preference for predictable love. On the latter she croons “I’m looking forward to a soft place to land / the forest floor / the palms of your hands”. It reveals the fragility of a woman keen to discover her equal half yet is tired of the journey required to find him. One can’t help but think if Vernon is indeed dating Edwards, he was probably secretly taking notes under the mixer controls.
It’s not until halfway through the album where the mandatory potential singles appear. The results are mixed. Sidecar is hampered by a slightly silly metaphor for its hook (“you and I will be sidecars / there to chase down the hard stuff”). Mint, however, is a relaxed mid tempo rocker that shimmers with an almost Eagles-like chill. It proves the more obvious singles choice of the two, not just because it’s the superior track, but more so because it bears a passing resemblance to Sheryl Crow‘s hit My Favourite Mistake.
Edwards saves her finest material for last. Pink Champagne, Going To Hell and in particular closing track For The Record (which also features backup from Norah Jones) are spacious, naturistic and give her studio band the freedom to explore different textures and landscapes. Despite this, Edwards begins to border on narcissism with lines such as “hang me out to die in the sun / for the record / I only wanted to sing songs”. But heck, she’s an introspective singer-songwriter, she’s supposed to be a little narcissistic, right?
Regardless, in a year of powerhouse female vocalists, Edwards deserves her place near the upper ranks with Voyageur.