For several years now, my standard response whenever I got into conversations about Kathleen Edwards was that I "liked her but didn't love her." To be honest I cribbed this from a friend but it reflected my view well enough. The voice has always been beautiful and the material has just enough twang in it to appeal to me but the three albums of material she'd released sounded inconsistent to my ears. Songs like Buffalo and In State were spare and beautiful but clashed with more radio friendly material like the inexplicably popular You Make the Dough, I Get the Glory that was, at best, average to my ear.
Don't get me wrong; despite the fact that I "didn't love her" I've seen Kathleen live no less than four times. The last time was on a vacation to Toronto which included a drive to Ottawa to see her at the Black Sheep Inn. As a live performer she's never disappointed: a slightly potty mouthed highly entertaining force of nature on stage, she engages with the audience well and even those songs I haven't loved on record have been a good time when I've heard them live. It's just that the albums tended to stay in heavy rotation for a while and then fade into the background of my life. Hence the "like not love."
Edwards' new album Voyageur may have changed all of that. It's her strongest work yet, showcasing a tweaked sound and material that's as good as anything she's ever released. Considering that each of her previous albums were better than their predecessor, that's no small feat.
Edwards' material has always been solidly Canadian in its themes and that continues here with the album's opener Empty Threat. It's refrain "I'm movin' to America / it's an empty threat" drew laughs from the crowd at the Black Sheep Inn last year in tacit recognition that every successful Canadian artist faces the decision at some point.
The song introduces that tweaked sound too. The twang is still a strong presence, but there's a bit more keyboard now. Edwards has always toed the Alt-Country line pretty closely, and it's nice to see her finding her own way. The new sound is good, and it's perhaps most evident on the albums's lead single Change the Sheets, which seems like it was released months ago. How much of this new sound can be credited to Bon Iver's Justin Vernon remains to be seen. Vernon filled the dual roll of producing the album and as Edwards' new beau, and only time will tell if the musical partnerships stays fruitful.
With a marriage that's broken down since the release of Asking for Flowers it's easy enough to find clues that point to this album as an exercise in catharsis. House Full of Empty Rooms and Going to Hell seem to reflect on the confusion that can happen when the people in our lives change over time. Partnered with upbeat relationship friends songs like Sidecar, the album presents a full view of the feelings of loss, sadness, joy, discovery and repair that can accompany the end of one relationship and the eventual start of another. It's rather nice of Kathleen to invite us along on her cathartic journey, if that's how you want to view it.
There's not a weak song in the bunch here. Even the very radio friendly Sidecar stands out, with strong lyrics a solid drumbeat and Edwards' appealingly slightly rough vocals at full volume.
I'm hopeful that moving to America is an empty threat there: Kathleen Edwards is one of the finest talents to come out of our country in a while, and I'd hate to lose her. Still, having opened for Bon Iver on a number of recent tour dates seems to have done a good job of building awareness south of the border and that can only be good for her career.
If Kathleen's music hasn't grabbed you yet, Voyageur just might change that.
Voyageur is being released on January 17th everywhere. East Coast tour dates are posted on Kathleen's web site, but no west coast dates have been announced yet.