Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur
Voyageur makes its steely, uncompromising case with almost unsettling cool. Kathleen Edwards' fourth album, coming five years after the fulsome Asking For Flowers, it dispenses with fat arrangements and country-rock tropes in favour of a chilly minimalism. Co-produced by partner in both crime and love, Justin Vernon (Mr Bon Iver to me and you), it's a notable left turn. If AFF seemed to indicate some kind of arrival for Edwards, a fully realised mix of back stoop balladry and hefty guitar work-outs that hinted at a deepening self-belief, an emerging voice and more time and trouble taken in the studio, her latest is a genuinely shocking reversal. Peter Buck used to claim that REM made albums as a direct reaction to the previous one: with Voyaguer, Edwards drives her entire back catalogue off a cliff.
Sad to say, it's an experiment more admirable than lovable. Here’s an album whose provenance is easy to trace. These are no studio, full band jam sessions. The cold air blowing through these songs suggests tunes sketched out in solitude, pulled from the night and given just enough ornamentation to keep them from floating away. Yes, the likes of ‘Empty Threat’ and ‘Mint’, the latter a chunky groove-out reminiscent of Sheryl Crow’s ‘Can’t Cry Any More’, convince with their bar band ‘live’ feel but it’s the aching balladry of ‘A Soft Place to Land’ and the awkward, ghostly ‘Chameleon Comedian’ that typify Edwards’ (undeniably) brave new world. They’re slivers of their creator’s previous form and, in common with another half dozen almost half-formed tracks, they ask much of the listener. So often, that’s a challenge worth rising to but here, at times, the reward seems … slim.
All told, it's all too difficult to frame fondness for an artist's M.O. with putting the boot in their flights of fancy. Or is it too easy? Whatever, it's without doubt both fair and prudent to offer our mavericks a yard or two of indulgence. If Edwards' new direction lacks instant (or, potentially, long-term) appeal, maybe that's the price of the ride, the thrill of not knowing what she'll do next. For someone whose voice has so often been one to trust, it's a price worth paying. Difficult to recommend to the curious but old fans should, of course, stick around.