Tragedies and trying times often inspire the best art. For Laura Gibson, the last couple of years have been particularly trying, and her fourth and latest album, Empire Builder, is undoubtedly the result of her recent struggles.
In a nutshell: Gibson moved from Oregon to New York City in 2014 to attend grad school. Out of her comfort zone, she soon broke her foot, leaving her apartment-bound, and later that apartment burned to the ground in a gas explosion that killed two people. She lost most of her possessions including notebooks, lyrics, musical instruments and a vast collection of song ideas. Empire Builder is the sound of someone starting over.
Helping her craft these songs, Gibson has assembled an impressive cadre of musicians, including members of Death Cab for Cutie, the Decemberists, and Neko Case’s band. Gibson’s voice is a world-weary instrument, decidedly folky and tuneful but with a rough quality that cuts through the unique musical arrangements. Drums are loud but organic, way up in the mix, creating a wonderful syncopation that seems to fly in the face of the acoustic vibe. “You belong to us / You belong to the cause,” Gibson sings over a band that seems equally suited for both noisy club gigs and intimate campfire singalongs.
A loud, assured beat introduces “Not Harmless” as Gibson sings “You can pull me aside / Hold me like a wounded bird.” Undoubtedly, the making of Empire Builder was a cathartic experience, and the lyrics sometimes reflect a fragility but also a perseverance. Perhaps, in lesser hands, Gibson’s experiences would be enough for the average singer/songwriter to pack it in. For her, it simply inspires her to push harder.
Take the title track, for instance: it could be a breakup song. It definitely addresses trust issues, but it also is an acknowledgment of an imperfect relationship. “This is not an escape,” Gibson sings. “But I don’t know how to hold someone without losing my grip / You’ll say I was bound to leave / Since I first stepped across your borders / Since I crawled into your skin.” In the second verse, the subject is changed to an observation of the scenery, which makes sense, since “Empire Builder” is the name of the passenger train route running from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago. “So I’ll pass the lumber mills / I’ll pass the coal mines and the parks and the dried up oil fields.” Upon leaving Oregon for the East Coast, Gibson left her long-time boyfriend. This song’s sensitive breakup subject matter is suddenly, jarringly changed to watching America zoom by her train window. One way of dealing with a difficult situation is to – at least temporarily – avoid it entirely. The lyrical content of “Empire Builder” seems so personal that it almost feels voyeuristic to listen.
Elsewhere, the music takes an occasionally jauntier turn – “Two Kids” has an upbeat, almost sing-song quality, and the song’s title possibly evokes childhood nostalgia, although it could be about anything. Gibson’s beautiful voice is sometimes overshadowed by the rustic yet enthusiastic instrumentation. The album’s musical groove is intoxicating, sometimes to the point of running over the words. This is a shame, since the lyrics can be mesmerizing and almost novelistic in their approach. The song “Damn Sure” closes with this gem: “Now I’m lost in the belly of a cold museum / Staring on the beaks on the bird-face men / Now you’re sitting in the kitchen with someone else / Stacking up peels of a clementine.”
But in the end, the combination of Gibson’s voice and the highly capable musicians backing her is a mostly winning one. In a way, the band eggs her on to a variety of peaks and valleys. Sometimes they rock out, sometimes it’s a quieter, more intimate affair. Gibson has been through a lot, and the songs on Empire Builder — as well as subsequent albums, one would hope – are an eloquent interpretation of her life and times.