Not much more than a year ago, Laura Gibson’s New York flat blew up with all of her lyrics and instruments inside.
Following the release of 2012’s La Grande and a train ride from Portland on the Empire Builder to the east coast to study in New York, March 2015 saw Gibson recovering and rewriting all of the lyrics she’d ever penned.
Gibson had already written many of the lyrics for this year’s Empire Builder when the explosion happened, so this story of a woman thrust into a crisis, recovering her life’s work is probably not the central story of this album, with its patient, precise, particular descriptions, its small details, its grand themes of leaving, separation, absence, nostalgia and (in)dependence. But it does make for an interesting afterword to the stories on the record.
If the album does solely focus on any one thing that’s autobiographical, it’s the decision to move away, looking back with some longing to old memories at home, and looking forward to future loves. “Hurry up and lose me, hurry up and find me again” are the closing words to the title track, and if the album describes a period of limbo, tied between the past and the future, between East and West, then the accident that saw Gibson lose her belongings and stability is the culmination and confirmation of her radical break with her past.
In documenting the beginning of this severed tie, more so than ever before, Gibson sounds assertive and bold: “You can pull me aside, hold me like a wounded bird/ But I am no prize, I am not harmless,” she asserts on Not Harmless, the statement of purpose for Gibson as a newly liberated woman. Album opener The Cause uses the most driving drum rhythm Gibson’s ever used, with a spiky, pizzicato bass line, and plucked strings that serve as a cheeky counterpoint to the vocals through Gibson’s latter verses, and that escalate with a tremolo to an anxious finish. It’s a similar technique to parts of Joanna Newsom’s string arrangements on Ys, where the vocal remains at the same level of intensity while the story develops, with the strings building above it to match the mood of the words.
While some may know Gibson as the first performer on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, and associate her with such sorts of hushed performances for a small, attentive gathering, these arrangements, most prominently featuring on Five And Thirty, The Search For Dark Lake, Caldera and The Last One give Gibson’s songs a many times larger scale, utilising lush, grand, growing choir and strings to allow her new textures and emotional scope. Though at its basis, the songs are much like a lot of songs that already exist – you can’t un-notice the similarity to Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right in the guitar part for Damn Sure, or Hallelujah in The Last One – Gibson’s capacity for a clear distillation of a scene or feeling is impressive, from the synoptic “we were clumsy at love, it was a shaky two step in a parking lot” on Two Kids, to the mournful blend of loneliness and technology in “I’ll mistake the station birds for the sound of my phone ringing” on Empire Builder.
Lyrics like Damn Sure’s “Now you’re sitting in the kitchen with someone else/ Stacking up peels of your clementine” can come across as nauseatingly precise, but others that seem so simple as to be trite actually manage a clarity and concise effectiveness, as in Five And Thirty’s “seems you loved me the most when I said, love is impossible”. With each album, Gibson develops these techniques, and Empire Builder sees her building these details to a new peak.