The back story of this album goes something like this. Phone Orphans will be Laura Veirs‘ final album. She is giving up music to pursue other projects. The record comprises previous efforts Veirs made by singing into her telephone over the years and pushing the record button. Veirs’ original intentions were to capture the creative moments. She selected 14 tracks from over 900 of these homemade demo-like voice memos for release. The artist left them as is rather than develop the cuts into more produced songs.
These modest tunes provide insight into the Veirs’ creative process and possess an unpretentious charm. The music can be simple, but that doesn’t mean the songs are uncomplicated. The lyrics are poetic, full of wordplay and imagery that describe the mixed emotions that result from the choices one makes (or doesn’t) as one grows older and rediscovers the meanings of life, as in raising children, as well as dealing with one’s mortality.
The truth is, we continually change even when we remain the same, as Veirs explicitly notes in songs such as “Rocks of Time”. She croons, “Back in those days the hours dragged by / The sun was a yellow slug in the sky / And in a flash six years passed by” as if singing a lullaby. These are the late-night thoughts of one on the cusp of transformation. The singer has to take a rest because the journey ahead will be arduous. Knowing that Veirs has made a radical change in her personal life, including a divorce from her longtime romantic and musical partner, gives lines like this a walloping punch.
On other tracks, Laura Veirs can be cryptic. She gets more mythic and folkloric on tales such as “The Archers”, where she lets the rhythm of her acoustic guitar strumming and the sound of her voice create a sonic space that evokes “purple clouds and a quiver filled with dew”. (The lyrics were adapted from a poem by Frederico Garcia Lorca.) The track doesn’t tell a narrative as much as it presents a picture. The singer mixes the similarity between the words “archers” and “arches” to suggest the rainbow arc of life. One needs to step back to perceive the beauty in the present moment as part of the whole. She conveys this sentiment in her high-pitched vocals and fast-paced playing, which take up more space in the song than its lyrical contents.
The instrumental “Piano Improv” shows Veirs’ ability to wring the feelings out of simple chords. She creates a reflective atmosphere in two minutes that lingers long after she’s done playing. There is nothing showy here, just some mood music that leaves the listener wanting more.
Because Phone Orphans’ contents are unpolished, some songs seem clumsy. The everyday language of “Valentine”, with lines like “your kids are doing just fine” and “I know you did our best”, make the story commonplace instead of forthright. The song’s protagonist is reportedly her grandfather, who had schizophrenia before dying. That’s tragic, but…. We all may lead ordinary lives that can be celebrated for their quotidian qualities, but at a certain point, so what? Veirs’ songs are best when she mixes the images, meanings, and sounds in ways that offer different strata of understanding. Perhaps because she is bottling her emotional response, the song remains too obvious and its sentiments too unambiguous.
However, Veirs can make this simplicity work for her. She performs a lovely a capella version of Rosalee Sorels’ “Up Is a Nice Place to Be”. The sound of Veirs’ unaccompanied voice is not conventionally pretty on this cut, but its appeal is kind of the point. The song’s moral is that it’s better to be with another person than to go through life by oneself. Singing the lyrics alone both suggests the truth and falsity of that lesson. Lines about “floating on fragments of sound” suggest multiple ways of hearing. The appeal of the solo voice is self-evident, and yet one can’t help but imagine the benefit of harmonizing with another person.
Phone Orphans works because of its roughness. She’s not gilding the lily. Veirs offers her direct sensibility as a way to address her ignorance. She doesn’t know the meaning of life any more than the rest of us. She has given the question serious thought and created art from the possibilities by singing, playing, and recording over the telephone late at night. That offers its own charming reasons for existence.