It’s against my feminist nature to define a singer-songwriter in the shadow of her boyfriend, so I’m pleased to report I’m not the biggest Bon Iver fan. Nevertheless, Kathleen Edwards and Justin Vernon brought out the best in each other this year. I’m going to credit his sleeping with the tuneful firecracker behind 2008’s most perfect pop song “The Cheapest Key” for imbuing Bon Iver with the sex and melody his mawkish cabin breakthrough For Emma, Forever Ago lacked. And I’m going to give it up to his remarkably celestial production assistance with giving a talented songwriter the thudding gravity her non-“Cheapest Key” songs lacked. Perhaps this means nothing on Voyageur has that country edge that made lyrics like “Asking for flowers/Is like asking you to be nice/Don’t tell me you’re too tired/For ten years I been working nights” so damning. But the texture saddles up perfectly alongside Edwards’ smooth – smooth like a good beer – burr, and allows her tunes an enveloping crawl that makes a whole record of slow ones listenable.
This is best exemplified by the closing trifecta. “Pink Champagne” is a perfect example of her parched, plainspoken delivery turning a chorus banality like “I don’t want to feel this way” into a swelling hymn worthy of something on Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The song itself is almost a remake of Bridesmaids, casting herself as a “perfect mess” who grumbles, “Looking back it was a bad idea/ Putting girls in the same-colored dress.” It’s followed by the spiraling “Going To Hell” (“In a basket I made/ it’s woven in letters/ and spells out your name”), which starts like a spare Cat Power tune before reaching Tori Amos-level vocal overdub overload incorporating a psychedelic, multi-layered guitar solo and more subtly, that same bicycle bell that Vernon loved so much on his own “Michicant.” It coheres not just better, but more dreamily than anything on Bjork’s fragmental Biophilia. And the seven-minute, organ-led processional “For The Record” burrows its black crucifixion humor into your brain: “Hey/ So hang me up on your cross/ For the record/ I only wanted to sing songs.”
Ironically, it’s only the start of the album that lifts off relatively tediously. Opener “Empty Threat” swells in nicely enough but the album doesn’t stray from its sluggish comfort zone until midway through track three, when the crawling “A Soft Place To Land” becomes a captivating march. That’s when early highlight “Change The Sheets” (which should’ve been track two, really) indeed changes everything and sets up the small-chamber gospel of “House Full Of Empty Rooms” and the strutting blues of “Mint.”
Edwards’ previous Asking For Flowers suffered from a similar running-in-place feel between highlights, and its five-minute opener “Buffalo,” while indeed gorgeously desolate, took five whole minutes to never actually peak. Voyageur improves on its predecessor by feeling both more intimate and more boomingly spacious – it helps move her away from the middle. But her talent would be so much easier to recognize with more variation in her tempos and song lengths (only three here under four minutes), especially when “Cheapest Key” proved she could rock so well.
So like her boyfriend, Edwards could still use twice as many fast ones, as “Change The Sheets” proves. Pump the domestic drive of Lori McKenna’s “Unglamorous” up with Coldplay-sized reverb, thumping drums and a sinuous, wordless hook, and you have a rousing celebration of “margaritas and sleeping pills.” It’s just begging to conquer AOR. The sidelong “Sidecar” is almost as hooky, with a winning title metaphor (“You and I will be sidecars/ there to chase down the hard stuff”) and a cute, Lucinda Williams-esque verse where she makes Vernon breakfast in bed. You get a feeling he won’t be making For Kathleen, Forever Ago anytime soon.