Review Summary: Laura, she's my Elvis.
Laura Stevenson, for years, has sounded like the future to me. I have seen her perform in four different states. I got to see the first-ever live performance of “Telluride,” then ripped the audio from a YouTube video of the show and listened to it for months until Wheel
finally came out. I watched her get heckled in a dive bar by a drunk old man until her boyfriend (now husband) had to physically push him away. I own every piece of music she has ever released in every format possible, even the Tallahassee Turns 10
cassette tape that contains her stunning cover of “No Children.” From where I’m sitting right now, I can see one of her setlists on the wall that I framed after snatching it from the stage several years ago (first song “Triangle,” last song “Master of Art”).
I say all that to illustrate that I obsess over Laura Stevenson’s music the way that some people have obsessed over The Beatles or Led Zeppelin or Radiohead. Again, she felt like the future, but she felt like the past and present as well. Imagine my surprise, then, when a bunch of videos and think-pieces started cropping up last year proclaiming that “the future of rock music is female,” with nary a mention of Laura Stevenson, who had already been illustrating that somewhat dubious claim for years. “My life’s work is waiting for a train to come,” she sang almost a decade ago. Then the train came and left her behind.
She’s now reached a point in her career where music journalists write articles wondering why she isn’t more popular and why the recent tide of critically-acclaimed ladies didn’t lift a boat that’s been gathering barnacles since the new breed were still in Algebra class. I don’t have to name names because everyone knows who they are. Their “Monthly Listeners” stats on Spotify number in the millions, while Laura doesn’t even have 75,000. On lyric site Genius, the top results for “Popular Laura Stevenson Songs” are three that she was featured on as a guest vocalist. I get no satisfaction from her status as a secret genius that only a few know about, toiling away for pennies as the bottled lightning that still hasn’t escaped Don Giovanni Records.
The Big Freeze
probably won’t change that. If the self-assured power pop of Cocksure
couldn’t do it, then this scaled-back slice of perfection won’t do it either. After dropping “and the Cans” from her name for Wheel
, she’s now dropped them for good, opting instead for studio musicians (save for her aforementioned husband and bass player, Mike Campbell). Gone is the accordion that used to fill out her songs. Most of the songs lack drums, and they are often acoustic. It is her shortest album since A Record
. Only one song – “Dermatillomania” – even approaches the jangly indie-pop of “The Healthy One” or “Sink, Swim.”
Yet this album only shows her songs as they have always been before the embellishments that were added later by her band. They were pretty but unnecessary. Their absence represents the solitary journey of mental illness and anxiety, the isolation of a locked door and minutes blurring into hours. Tempos are often disregarded, the music becoming improvisational and unplanned like it sounded in “The Wheel,” stopping and starting with each sentence, new thoughts becoming new songs in real time. Laura flourishes here in a way that she hasn’t before. Previous albums interspersed jaw-dropping and beautiful moments with songs that were more straightforward, if still excellent. The Big Freeze
doesn’t bother with such breaks. It is difficult to even listen to individual songs because they flow into each other so well that it feels wrong to skip around.
That said, this is her strongest collection of songs yet. “Value Inn” is the bleakest song Laura has ever written, with its beautifully eerie imagery of emergency lights reflecting off an abandoned wave pool, the reverie broken as guitars stab at the encroaching dark. “Living Room, NY” shows her supernatural talent for vocal overdubs, which so many artists use only to make their voices louder in relation to the music. Laura instead dances nimbly atop her own voice or sinks beneath it, using it as an instrument and proving that her songs never needed a glockenspiel or accordion with a voice this stunning. Still, people missing the climaxes of songs like “Master of Art” or “L-DOPA” will find a new favorite in “Low Slow,” a song that builds and builds meticulously, tortuously, until it explodes with strings and an honest-to-god pop-star vocal run.
And with “Dermatillomania,” Laura takes the advice that she gave herself way back on “Beets Untitled” to “stop singing in code.” In a recent op-ed, she detailed her struggle with the potentially debilitating mental illness, making it even more impressive that she can still write music like this, music that has the sun shining through it. “Now you’re exorcised from my mind,” she tells her illness after the horns fade away, knowing it isn’t true but hoping against hope anyway. Take the hits as they come, her songs tell us. But get back up. Always get back up.