On the first song and title cut from Lauren Hoffman’s fourth full-length, the singer-songwriter immediately declares herself an “interplanetary traveler”, a metaphor for explorations of the heart and the planet alike. These physical and spiritual journeys inform much of her new record’s subject matters, if not sonics, and bleeds over to the trippy astro-girl album cover. Where the journey has taken Hoffman most recently is on a world-traveling search for inspirations and simplicity, after she sold most of her possessions and left her home in Virginia for a number of months. Her travels ultimately landed her in Israel, where she fell in with musician/producer Assaf Ayalon, forging a collaboration that flowered into the songs on Interplanetary Traveler.
It’s Hoffman’s first release since 2006’s Choreography, an album that was full of Beth Orton-ish digital balladry and chugging rock songs, showcasing the sort of shapeshifting that has been Hoffman’s calling card as a singer-songwriter since she appeared on the scene in 1997 with her acclaimed but commercially overlooked debut, Megiddo. Since then, Hoffman has worked at a tortoise’s pace, taking seven years, for instance, between her second and third records and another four years to make Interplanetary Traveler. Thing is, Hoffman has always been a bit of a rolling stone, an independent spirit that explains in part the deliberate pace of her releases, whether due to clashes with her label or personal searches.
Despite a project that was built on uprooting for something different, Interplanetary Traveler is Hoffman’s most cohesive and unpretentious album to date. Whatever world-hopping Hoffman has done, those influences are subtle here, although the record certainly signals a shift for Hoffman away from digitized beats and studio confections; despite the album’s title and cover, this not an album of cosmic effulgence. Instead, Hoffman this time favors acoustic guitars, live percussion, and stately organs. Hoffman’s chill-pill vocals never rise far above a confessional, easy flow, and the album is a tidy ten-song, 35-minute set of uniformly pleasant songs.
If the music is conscientiously safe on the record, the lyrics guide the album through Hoffman’s conceit of explorations, especially those that put us in thrilling, but tenuous, contact with the Other out there: “There’s nothing quite like learning to fall in love in a foreign tongue”, she sings on the title song. And on “Pictures from America”, she sings of a lover or friend who, amid the backdrop of war, happens to be in the USA’s cross-hairs: “The television loves to say you’re my enemy / I wonder what you’ve ever done to me”. Lines like these tend to lean toward simplicity, perhaps sentimentality, and finding her own Nikita isn’t exactly an original concept for a pop song, as elsewhere Hoffman relies on cliches like “I’m not the kind of bird you can put in a cage” to describe her rambling fever.
The song the Hoffheads will be singing along to is “Prove the Moon”, a sweet, melodic song that begins, “When you really see how beautiful you are / You can rest inside that space / Relax and radiate / Flood the world in silence with your grace”. The song is a slice of lovely folk-speak and brushed snare that may turn into a quiet anthem that Hoffman’s fans never let her stop playing. Another highlight is “In This Life”, a Utopian dream song, but one with an undeniably great melody buttressed by Hoffman’s double-tracked vocals.
These sing-song melodies and Hoffman’s friendly vocals almost suggest children’s music at times, especially on “The River Takes Me” with the sung-in-a-round chorus: “The river takes me there / Stars caught in my hair”. The explanation for this kid-friendly feel is perhaps the same inspiration that finally ended Hoffman’s world tour: the birth of her baby daughter. It’s easy to read the lyrics on this record as the viewpoint of a woman now turned thirty trying to seize what she needs, but every love song here doubles as a testament to the unearthly transformation of motherhood: “Were the clouds always so white? / Was the sky always so blue? / I don’t know where I am when I’m with you”. Interplanetary Traveler could be your (and your kids’?) favorite new Saturday morning record and is certainly a good-natured trip worth taking.