Kathleen Edwards | Total Freedom | (Dualtone)
3 out of 5 stars
The key to Kathleen Edwards’ first album since 2012’s Voyager lies on the front cover. The Canadian singer/songwriter’s previous four releases either had no picture, or one where her face was hidden from view as on 2005’s Back to Me. But for Total Freedom, Edwards is staring straight at the camera in a shot that’s almost wincingly direct. Her expression is less defiant than serious, as if demanding the listener to meet the artist on her own terms.
Opening “Glenfern” inspects the rear view mirror of Edwards’ initial brush with fame singing “we bought a rock and roll dream it was total crap/ we toured the world and we played on tv/we met some of our heroes/it almost killed me.” But she ends the chorus with “and I will always be thankful for it.” What better way to stage a comeback?
Longtime Edwards fan Maren Morris invited Edwards to Nashville in 2018 to write, which sparked this return. With six years of life and love experiences to reflect on, Edwards has plenty to sing about. There’s the death of friends both human (“Ashes to Ashes,” not the Bowie song) and animal (a fond farewell to her dog in “Who Rescued Who”), a loss of love (“Feelings Fade”), the finding of a new one (“Options Open”) and a middle finger to an ex who took advantage of her emotionally and financially (the lyrics to “Fool’s Ride” are “here comes the red flag flying in the shit parade/a warning sign that I ignored”).
Musically, the songs stay in a somewhat predictable mid-tempo, strummy groove. While that lets longtime producer Jim Bryson focus on Edwards’ distinctive vocals, placing them front and center in the mix, the tunes tend to blur together. The backing instrumentation occasionally seems detached from the words and/or the feelings of the songs, as if the players didn’t know what the tunes were about when laying down their tracks. Add melodies that drift by without many hooks or memorable choruses and much of this doesn’t offer a lot to beckon the listener back for repeated plays.
Edwards’ best albums connected her melodic sense with a vocal urgency. While her singing remains strong and she is emoting about issues close to her, these tracks would benefit from more musical muscle. Regardless, even if Total Freedom isn’t her finest work, it’s encouraging that Edwards has returned to releasing new material and doing what she does best.
Pre-order the new album here.