Tonight I’m part of the jury voting for the winner of the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. Today, my notes on all 10 albums, that I made in advance of a juror dinner last night. What you see here is entirely my opinion, in no way reflecting the conversation at that table, other than that I vocalized many of these points, and was merely one of 10 very intelligent and articulate people in the discussion.
Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur
First impressions (published Jan. 12, 2012):
In the advance hype leading up to Voyageur, much has been made of Kathleen Edwards’ creative and romantic partnership with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, the indie sensation whose 2010 album topped many year-end lists and garnered several Grammy nominations. On the surface, it’s a strange combination: Edwards has rarely strayed from the Canadiana roots rock template of her peers Sarah Harmer, Jim Bryson and Blue Rodeo; Vernon makes sensitive, mellow pseudo-folk music that sounds like it’s sung by space aliens and a ’70s L.A. studio band. What would Vernon do with Edwards’ music? Hook her up to a helium tank? Demand she strip away any literal language in her lyrics? Impose a five-piece horn section on every song?
Vernon is all about the opaque; Edwards is never anything but blunt and direct. Using their lyrics, let’s imagine a typical conversation between them. Edwards: “I know your heart is a sacred thing. You’re a comedian hiding behind your funny face.” Vernon: “In a mother, out a moth, furling forests for the soft, gotta know been lead aloft.” Edwards: “Out of the shadows, out of the cameras and the lights, you’re a chameleon and you hide behind your darker side.” Vernon: “I’m ridding all your stories. What I know is, what it is, is pouring—wire it up!”
Thankfully, Vernon doesn’t impose himself on Edwards’ music; the production is crisp and clean, and there’s little here to distinguish it from any other Edwards album, other than her continuing maturity as a writer—although 2008’s Asking For Flowers was the real sea change, where she expanded her writing voice, constructing strong narratives that were clearly not autobiographical, setting short stories to songs. Here she’s back to writing what could easily be seen as personal stories; in the last year she divorced previous collaborator Colin Cripps before taking up with Vernon, and much of the album is about beginnings and endings of relationships. She and Vernon have very little in common, musically, although her “House Full of Empty Rooms” shares chords and sounds somewhat like Bon Iver’s “Beth/Rest,” only without a Mike and the Mechanics backdrop and with about 1/20th the amount of reverb.
And yet if enough potential fans who would never give Kathleen Edwards the time of day before are suddenly interested because of the Bon Iver connection, more power to her. Edwards has yet to make a weak record, and Voyageur finds her more than ready for her close-up.
--The production is fantastic, although, as no fan of Bon Iver records, I prefer to think this is due to a more experienced Edwards and her band learning to let the music breathe, and utilizing more interesting guitar and keyboard textures (see: “Going to Hell”) than most standard roots rock bands do.
--“I’m looking for a soft place to land”—is there a more tender admission to a new lover from someone on the rebound? That’s the sound of the evening proposal; "Sidecar" is the sound of the buoyant next morning, the couple ready to burst out of the house, hand-in-hand, jump on their bikes in jubilation and watch the world erupt into a giant lip dub in their wake.
--Edwards has a way of drawing maximum emotional resonance out of a chorus lyric like “I don’t need a punchline.”
--The opening, descending half-note piano chords on “Soft Place to Land” are as delicate as snowfall; the spaces between notes on this album often speak volumes.
--She calls in some heavyweight guests here—Bon Iver, Norah Jones, Bahamas, Hawksley Workman, the Good Lovelies, Jim Bryson—but they all fit seamlessly into the puzzle. I didn’t even recognize Norah Jones on “For the Record.” This is a great singer/songwriter album where the woman in question is always front and centre; everything else is just texture. (“For the record, I only wanted to sing songs.”)
--Gord Tough’s guitar sound captures Canadiana roots rock—from Neil Young to the Grapes of Wrath to the Rheostatics to Weeping Tile—like very few others; he’s a major asset here.
--“House Full of Empty Rooms” is hardly an original metaphor in a divorce song, but title aside, Edwards expertly captures the slow dissolution of a couple falling out of love.
--“Pink Champagne” has this awesome zinger: “In a dress to kill and a glass to fill.”
--I’m still not sold on Edwards’s upper register; the notes she’s aiming for always seem just ever-so-slightly out of her grasp (not unlike Joel Plaskett, who really, really milks this). When she’s competing with Feist and Cold Specks, this is a major shortcoming.
--“Change the sheets and then change me” is not a great lyric to hang a chorus on.
--It’s hard to fault Voyageur for much, but at the same time there’s little that would ever make me place it above all other records I heard in any given 12-month period.
Things I’m not supposed to think about:
Her 2008 album, Asking for Flowers, was much better, rooted more in obviously fictional narratives and showing her development as a short-story teller.