Justin Vernon Comes Along For the Ride
Canadian alt-country chanteuse Kathleen Edwards is delivering a new album, her fourth, that might attract more notoriety for the music industry headlines that she’s recently chalked up more so than for the actual contents of that album, Voyageur. For those of you who might not be keeping score, Edwards split from her husband and long-time musical collaborator, Collin Cripps, a fairly well-respected (at least in his home country) Canadian music producer and musician, and has lately found herself in a romantic relationship and creative partnership with none other than Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, a move that will undoubtedly bring her much more cachet in America and beyond. Not only has Edwards been touring with Vernon, but he has co-produced Edwards’ latest album. So this is a pretty big deal – a new personal and artistic move for Edwards – and, in fact, if you start typing her name (or Cripps for that matter) into Google, the search engine automatically adds “divorce” to it in auto-type without any prompting. Marital strife and new horizons unfurl throughout Voyageur, though if you’re looking for a searing and personal album from Edwards, well, Voyageur isn’t quite it – though it does flirt and dance around with the subject matter.
Voyageur marks some new territory for the artist in that the coyly self-deprecating nature of some of her songs, such as “One More Song the Radio Won’t Like” and her jab at fellow Ottawa musician and touring bandmate Jim Bryson, “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory”, has been dialed back a bit, in exchange for some artistic hand-wringing over her current state of affairs. Voyageur is a pretty serious and straightforward affair, full of seemingly autobiographical references (that somehow feel removed from the self) and the occasional flash of Biblical imagery.
Opener “Empty Threat” might be the most in-your-face reference to Edwards’ recent share of heartbreak with Cripps and kindled romance with Vernon. On it, she sings during the chorus that “I’m moving to America ... / It’s an empty threat.” Listeners might be led to wonder if that line means she was shacking up with Vernon before ending her marriage to Cripps, or if that’s even perhaps reading too much into things between the lines. In fact, on the follow-up song “Chameleon / Comedian”, she even offers “I’m a comedian / I just hide behind the songs I write.” So that’s a bit of a source of frustration with Voyageur: Edwards has seemingly scrubbed her lyrics clear of any references to her actual personal situation and has crouched things in vague metaphors and depersonalized narratives. To be fair, she does broach the issue of romantic fires being extinguished on piano ballad “House Full of Empty Rooms”: “You don’t kiss me / Not the way that I wish you would / Maybe I don’t look at you / In a way that makes you think you should”. However, it’s the use of that word “maybe” that throws one in a bit of a loop: it offers little in the way of personal revelation, and it just makes the situation seem generic.
What Voyageur does offer is the occasional flash of the ever popular tortured artist effect crouched in the stuff that evangelical preachers would unleash. On “Mint”, Edwards croons “God knows I want to / God knows I need to / God doesn’t know you like I do” as well as “Lord knows I tried to be true”, and on the epic seven-minute long “For the Record” that ends the album, she compares herself to Christ being nailed on the cross: “For the record I only wanted to sing songs” she notes, which is very likely a volley at those she wants to get lost about her recent personal turmoil. Fair enough. However, sometimes the message gets a little muddled at times. “Anywhere you go, I’ll follow,” she sings on one song. The title? “Going to Hell”. So, what does that reference mean, exactly? Is that another stab at referring to marital infidelity? At times, Voyageur seems oblique at what it exactly wants to say.
As for the much vaunted Vernon being added to the co-producer’s chair, his presence is both an asset and a liability. The main thing that he does for Edwards is that he avoids adding in his intimate, home-spun style and lets Edwards try to blossom as songwriter and musician aside from the occasional orchestral display here and there. The problem, however, is that this means he didn’t reel in Edwards’ stabs at being a Sheryl Crow soundalike, which are at their most prominent on roots rocker “Mint”. He is reportedly present on Voyageur as a guest, as is Norah Jones, but, here’s the thing: you’d be very hard pressed to figure out where these distinctive musicians make their mark on the album without being acutely told which song or songs they performed on.
Overall, Voyageur isn’t a bad effort, and it kind of creeps up on you the more you spend time with it. However, the overall effect is a bit of a stab at cookie-cutter Americana (or Canadiana, if you prefer) and Edwards treads down the road somewhat frequently taken by other female singer-songwriters such as Crow and Lucinda Williams. That isn’t necessarily a horrible thing, but it does make Voyageur a bit interchangeable with other efforts by other artists. Still, for all of its skirting around the edges and lack of direct comment on her own personal state of affairs – and that might sound like sour grapes, a reviewer wanting to know more intimate details of an artists’ personal crises and demons – Voyageur is a serviceable and agreeable record worth taking down a gravel road to.
The only unfortunate thing is that there’s a lot of grist for the mill that could have gone into the making of this record, given the background noise and clutter of her very public falling out with Cripps and public falling in with Vernon. All Voyageur seems to say is that she’s unsure what to say about it. When she does offer “I don’t want to feel this way” on “Pink Champagne”, we feel it. We, the listeners, don’t really know how she wants to emote, and that, for all of the ear pleasing country goodness of Voyageur, it winds up being its biggest failing: a lack of a clear, consistent narrative arc that says something about one’s public persona and the intrusion of the deeply personal upon it. Maybe it’s just genuine confusion on Edwards’ part, or a reluctance to rock the boat with both her former hubby and her current squeeze, but, in the end, Voyageur might leave you wanting to give the artist a poke, and ask her the question posed by therapists everywhere, “Tell us, Kathleen, how do you really feel?”
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