For over a decade Vetiver has essentially been the vehicle for Andy Cabic to gently pursue his own form of understated musical exploration. He may not have been the most prolific of artists and not one prone to radical reinvention, but sixth album Complete Strangers confirms the small incremental progressions that each album has brought. It also shows his music to be moving in an increasingly harmonious and almost mainstream direction. Cabic himself may have provided the neatest summary of the album when he said it “feels like someone I’ve just met yet known for a long time”.
It was written and recorded partly in Cabic’s home in San Francisco and partly in producer Thom Monahan‘s studio in Los Angeles, and the untroubled sense of Californian warmth is perhaps more evident here than on any previous Vetiver album. Musically it’s an inviting musical enclave – an album to recline and bask in, even if lyrically it doesn’t always follow a similarly positive and relaxed path.
The electronic effects on album opener Stranger Still seem to be immediately subsumed into Cabic’s core sound, bringing mild propulsion and offering an eminently good fit alongside his soft vocals. Following track From Now On has a more retreated, wistful feel before the radio-friendly buoyancy and sunshine-bathed pop of Current Carry sets a far looser and casual tone. It also suggests Vetiver to be following a similar musical trajectory to Iron & Wine in their journey from lo-fi, alt-folk to a broader, more inclusive sound. The title and music of Confiding can both be understood in a wider context – quiet intimacy and trust being values long present in the Vetiver sound, both heightened here as the repeated “fools rush in” line takes hold among the mellifluent background. The immaculately crafted Backwards Slowly meanwhile has a zoned out mellowness reminiscent of fellow Californians Beachwood Sparks.
The pace is lifted on Loose Ends which is the closest they’ve come to out and out guitar power-pop. As melodic rays of sunshine abound, it’s the moment where the realisation sets in that this is the most their folk edges have been smoothed out to date. Shadows Lane meanwhile possesses the clarity of recent releases by The High Llamas, suggesting how their late-period pastoral sounds would be translated if relocated to the west coast of America. It’s a view that receives further backing throughout the muted tropicalia of Time Flies.
It’s left to the two most emotionally affecting, introspective tracks to close the album. Edgar is centred around a theme of bittersweet reflection featuring lines like “wasn’t all that wise, had a lot to learn, wore a weary smile through his days, always time to burn”. As strings drift in to see the song out it’s a proper-stop-you in-your-tracks moment. The spine-tingling Last Hurrah goes one step further – a lost, disengaged sadness gradually overtaking the song as Cabic ponders “how’d it all get so out of hand?”. It’s an exquisitely beautiful closer.
Complete Strangers is one of those collections where over the course of several listens each song enjoys time as being considered the highpoint of the album only for another track to supplant it soon after. Whisper it, but Vetiver may have just made one of the albums of the year.