Music Reviews

posted: January 5, 2012

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Kathleen Edwards Voyageur

Zoe LP and CD
Kathleen Edwards

Kathleen Edwards experienced a lifetime of changes during the past three years. She divorced husband and frequent collaborator Collin Cripps. She began a romantic and creative relationship with Justin Vernon, the Bon Iver namesake who helped produce and played on her new Voyageur. And, as detailed in witty fashion on the album-opening “Empty Threat,” she temporarily relocated to the United States from her native Canada. She also matured as an artist, expanding on the roots-based palette of Americana and amps-blurring rock of 2008’s Asking for Flowers by undertaking a record augmented by a number of co-writers and guest participants. Transformative shifts also extend to her lyrical scenery, surroundings, and situations.

A cult favorite since debuting in 2003 with Failer, Edwards stands to benefit from her association with Vernon, who currently can’t do wrong and, more importantly, whose textural motifs adorn the singer-songwriter’s material with evocative layering, greater depth, and music-box fragility. She exchanges the humorous brashness and loose playfulness of her past for concentrated pathos, reflection, and sensitivity.

In doing so, Edwards becomes exposed in ways that, at times, makes listening uncomfortable. Fresh scars, persistent regrets, unanswered questions, two-way accusations, lingering doubts, and consuming guilt pepper her narratives. Her voice often possesses a soul-shattering sincerity and delicate softness that turns the fare into private, reflexive conversations that sound as if they transpire in front of a mirror. A majority of the songs are shot through with transformative anguish and reality-grounded balance. Yet Edwards’ greatest accomplishment on Voyageur pertains to the record’s overall mood and perspective. While poignantly addressing circumstances and feelings connected to her break-up, she never settles for vindictive revenge, emasculating blame, or debilitating pessimism.

By confronting her own flaws and roles in the dissolution, Edwards shows she’s already moved beyond anger and acquiesces to the consequences. Despite moments of weakness, disappointment, and disillusionment, Edwards suggests humans haven’t any other logical choice than to move on—no matter how hurtful as such processes can be. Reluctant understanding and shared acceptance arrive during the heart-lacerating “House Full of Empty Rooms,” an elegy on which the vocalist admits she’s less than perfect while singing, “You don’t kiss me/Not the way that I wish you would/Maybe I don’t look at you/In the way that makes you think you should.” Edwards doesn’t play martyr; rather, she finds fortitude in honest contemplation, recognizing that the process leads to the type of hope embodied in the upbeat “Sidecar” and dissipating darkness of “Going to Hell.”

Space-conscious and hovering instrumental touches—faint electronic washes, subtle xylophones, bluegrass-hinting banjos, filter-echoed guitars—underline Edwards’ guarded optimism, bringing to tunes fleshed-out arrangements and band-involved contributions largely absent from her previous efforts. From the back-and-forth exchanges on the baroque-flavored “Chameleon Comedian” to the militant percussion, sawing violin, and somber piano on the comfort-seeking “A Soft Place to Land,” tonally reverberant blends shade Edwards’ storytelling and singing. The combination is seldom more effective than on the sighing lament “Pink Champagne,” throughout which building notes cut like broken shards of glass and swelling country accents function as pain-dulling whiskey shots.

Indeed, after hearing Edwards scourge herself for mistakes that didn’t seem so, the following two tracks—the last on the album—seem anti-climatic, even as the closing “For the Record” serves as a statement of purpose on an album on which determination isn’t optional but prescribed.

–Bob Gendron