Review Summary: No one teaches you to breathe
As a relative novice with Laura Stevenson’s music, I feel like a bit of impostor writing this review, particularly given her status as one of the more beloved artists on this website. Nonetheless, her latest effort deserves a writeup, and this album’s gotten under my skin more than enough for me to have some thoughts to share.
Given my lack of in-depth knowledge of Stevenson’s back catalog, I’m not the one to comment effectively on what direction she’s moving in with this release, or to analyze whether the image she portrays here feels consistent with her previous stylings or represents something new and fresh. What I can say, though, is that this album, while feeling like a grab-bag at times, is reliably enjoyable and leaves the listener plenty of reason to listen over, and over, and over.
I’ve spent a strangely lengthy amount of time thinking about this album’s artwork, and what it signifies for this release. Its mellow color scheme and images of woman, child, and dog within their self-contained little world are reminiscent of a children’s book and suggest a sense of intimacy which reinforces the expectation that a self-titled release often evokes, implying that this is Laura Stevenson going for an unvarnished and personal project. Perhaps the reason I’ve spent so much brain activity on this subject is that I’m not quite sure that ends up being the case. While this is undoubtedly an emotional record frequently dealing with subjects like traumatic experiences and death, the lyrics are usually cryptic and more adorned then expected.
has a curious album structure, beginning with (by far) the most raucous song, “State”, followed by a series of mostly more drawn-out tunes, and finishing with a set of largely shorter and mainly sedate tracks. The second song, “Don’t Think About Me” sets the tone for the album’s default setting with its dreamier melodicism following the viciously aggressive chorus of the opener, while “Sandstorm” injects a needed bundle of energy into the more reserved second half. Every single song has distinctive characteristics and functions well on its own, but it’s easy to argue that a rearrangement of the track list to more evenly distribute the longer and shorter and the mellower and harder-rocking songs throughout the runtime would create a more complete listening experience. That said, despite its oddness this is a damn listenable album as is.
is a largely subtle work, both musically and lyrically. If one reads along with the lyrics while listening, there are a ton of potent lines, but many will pass you by without notice otherwise, while the melodies are easy-going and restrained. Sonically, besides the opener the album adheres to lighter shades of music, from the country-rock leanings of “Continental Divide” (great, great song) to the folky strumming of “Blue Sky, Bad News” (what a title) to the piano balladry of “Mary”. The record’s last two tracks are both short and quite stripped-down, but are also lyrical goldmines which leave the listener on a touching note.
In the end, this is an album I find a bit hard to assess. For one thing, I spent a good share of this review critiquing its flow and structure. For another, singer-songwriter music along these lines is usually a style in which I find it easy to pick out individual songs as personal favorites, and honestly this album doesn’t really evoke that response. While listening to something else, none of the songs here summon me to randomly give them a jam. That said, when spinning this it is a pretty heavenly record from start to finish, and more often than not I’ve hit the replay button as soon as the album ends. Final thoughts, I guess: the music’s good, anything else is overthinking it.