[27 February 2003]
First off, is Kathleen Edwards worth the hype? After all, this is her debut album and she’s already garnering serious comparisons to Lucinda Williams. She played The Late Show with David Letterman just as Failer hit American shelves. Rolling Stone named her one of 10 acts to watch in 2003. Surely that’s the product of a fully charged hype machine, making potent use of both Edwards’ comeliness and her songs full of bad girls. Not since Gillian Welch rolled her dusty Model T up to the Americana gates has the genre greeted a debut record with such anticipation.
Well, those things certainly doesn’t hurt, but even the best manufactured publicity falters if the material’s not up to snuff. Failer was released in Canada months before it came out in America, and rather than fade away, it only grew in stature as it made its way like some alt-country Godzilla closer and closer to America’s border. It turns out that Failer lives up to the reputation that precedes it.
The Lucinda Williams comparisons make sense. Edwards’s vocal style possesses a sleepy drawl that falters and slides across her lyrics, and the effect often accomplishes things that the lyrics couldn’t on their own (in “Hockey Skates”, her vocals seem to fall farther and farther out of time, as if exhausted). But Failer also bears witness to more bad choices than a Liz Phair record. Part of the fascination with Failer is undoubtedly with its subject matter: barflies, women sleeping with married men, girls winding up in the backseats of cars with the wrong guys, and characters who need a bottle to take the edge off of ticking clocks. Edwards admits to a wayward youth, and Failer undoubtedly draws from that wellspring of experience, but she emphasizes that personas make up no small part of Failer. So despite her relative openness about her past and her penchant for Maker’s Mark, it’s dangerous to read Failer as a Kathleen Edwards episode of Biography. Still, her lyrics and arrangements nail ennui, boredom, and depression with remarkable precision.
“Hockey Skates” chronicles “going down in the same old town down the same street to the same bar / And the same old people saying hi and I don’t care / Going down in the same old bar and I don’t even order anymore / I am so sick of consequence and the look on your face”. “12 Bellevue” confesses, “I was thinking about drinking my way through the day”. “Westby” even manages to throw some humor into the mix: “And if you weren’t so old I’d probably keep you / If you weren’t so old I’d tell my friends / But I don’t think your wife would like my friends”. It’s hardly fun and games, though, and Edwards doesn’t glamorize any of these proceedings. On the enigmatic and minimalist “Mercury”, it’s equally valid to think Edwards’ character actually wound up dead after a rendezvous, or is taking stock of how close her lifestyle may be getting her to that fate. The song is such a shift in approach from the rest of Failer that it’s easy to consider “Mercury” the album’s centerpoint. That’s before you hear the closer, “Sweet Little Duck”. Slow and whispery, the song encapsulates everything that Failer‘s been about: the depression (“I sleep through most days / So the time goes by / And I think I drink more now than ever”) and the desire to progress (“I’m gonna set things right / I gotta job down south / Don’t you think about coming after me”). She whispers the end of the first line, “Sweet little duck I’ve been waiting for you”, so softly that it alters your entire perception of the song if you don’t hear it (unless you’re wearing headphones, you probably miss it).
Musically, Failer boasts plenty of highly charged alt-country arrangements. “Six O’Clock News” opens the album with a Byrdsy ring, and while “One More Song the Radio Won’t Like” takes the industry to task, it’s one of Failer’s catchiest songs. “The Lone Wolf” glides along towards a grim, fairy tale-tinged ending and “Maria” comes through the door awash in controlled feedback. All of that is secondary, though, to the overall effect of Edwards’ songs. Despite its high quality, Failer arguably gets off to a slow start (“Six O’Clock News” and “One More Song the Radio Won’t Like” seem to exist outside of the rest of Failer‘s universe), but after that, Edwards locks in on a vibe that stays consistent regardless of the arrangements. It’s an impressive debut, even moreso when you stop to consider that many songwriters with many more years can’t pull of the devastating effect of some of Edwards’s lyrics. Whether she lived them or not, the experiences on Failer obviously come from a very real place.