Bunyan emerges from a 35-year musical absence and cracks the 'sophomore slump' straight in the jaw with an updated sound and a brilliant collection of songs.
Thirty five years. It's necessary to make a big deal of this: Vashti Bunyan has released her second album 35 years after her first? One can become a completely different person over that span of time. Going into Lookaftering it's difficult to not ask questions -- is this the same Vashti Bunyan who made Just Another Diamond Day so long ago? Bunyan was just 25 when she released that album and now, looking 60 in the face, can she still sing? Write? Play?
For an album that Bunyan claims was "not really released, it just edged its way out, blushed and shuffled off into oblivion", Diamond Day has remarkable longevity in its following. It is a record which relatively recently became huge through whispers and only now, after such a long time in obscurity, stands as a noted entry into the British folk catalog. But it has become more, even, than that: Devendra Banhart's love for Diamond Day and idolatry for Bunyan prompted him to seek her out and since, her work has been noted in countless lists of influences and, upon the album's reissue and its consequential fantastic reception, she inevitably has reached (or will reach) an entirely new sect of music lovers. Bunyan, arguably, is more important today than she ever has been and that she is getting great press worldwide and her album has better distribution than it ever has only attests to its long-overlooked status -- people worldwide are still catching up.
And now to Lookaftering, an album whose title reportedly is a reference to the years Bunyan has spent away from music, a family word that Bunyan equates with caretaking. The title has clear implications of reflection, too, and one must ask if this is an elegy to the possibilities of a different route? In these songs, Bunyan addresses the choices she has made. She celebrates and criticizes motherhood, isolation, and the country life. On one hand, we can read a child-like simplicity into the concept of "lookaftering", or we could read it as a vehicle for sadness. Together, these ideas are representative of Bunyan's songwriting today, where the simplest things have the largest, most significant meanings.
There is a certain amount of domesticity in Lookaftering, as well, in the concept behind the title and in the feeling of the songs themselves. There is a peace in these songs, one which almost contradicts the inherent sadness. Listening to this music there is no sense of falsity, no real loss of hope. As bright-eyed as this album could possibly be, there is still an inherent, aged wisdom here, one which makes Lookaftering a sort of unavoidable remembrance or lament, even if it doesn't mean to be, necessarily. In the songs themselves, the character of Vashti Bunyan circa 1970 is not enveloped by sadness but there seems to be a degree of separation, as if the voice singing is Bunyan remembering what it meant to be that person who made Diamond Day, who walked away from all of this. Bunyan's still gorgeous voice reflects on frustrations with her choices throughout, and the feeling that this is a follow-up that's come after years of second-guessing makes it all the more heartbreaking and brilliant.
The most beautiful thing about Lookaftering, though, is that it is not a novelty album, one clearly inferior to its predecessor which could be read as an excuse to call attention to the first rather than itself. This is no appendix, no addendum to Diamond Day, but rather a second solid installment in a career we music gluttons consider to be too sparse. Bunyan's songwriting, her assembly of musicians, and especially her voice are superb on Lookaftering, possibly moreso here than they were on Diamond Day. Despite Bunyan's history, Lookaftering would be every bit as relevant an album today: looking at it stripped of its context, the result is one largely more stunning and gorgeous and deep as any folk music anyone else is making today.
In the context of the album's history, however, Bunyan has proved to be -- despite her 35 year absence -- one of music's most admirable characters. It is perhaps in this light that she was, in the 1960s, referred to as "the female Dylan" -- not for her lyrics or her performance, but simply for her character, as a prediction of her lasting quality. Like Dylan's early recordings, Just Another Diamond Day is as fresh today as it must have been then, and Lookaftering is every bit as stunning. Either album sounds as if it could have been made yesterday, or perhaps 35 years ago, and in the end both are essentially timeless.