words by matthew neale
photo by jason quigley
For all our literary devotion to sunlit afternoons and dark nights of the soul, real life rarely works in such easy contrasts. Our gold medal moments are flecked with sadness, swollen in purples and blues under the skin, and we scold ourselves for allowing the compromise: this should be the job, the house, the lover, the moment. “How can a child of the sun seem so cold?” Laura Veirs asks on her tenth album The Lookout, and though the line appears only once in allusion to the Colorado native’s childhood memories, it is the question that permeates the entire record.
Though Veirs’ songwriting quality is reliably evergreen – while we may compare and contrast her work, it’s hard to imagine the artist producing anything totally bereft of pleasure at this point – the unique fractures of the age imbue every line with prescience, intentional or otherwise. If that is the case, it’s not because The Lookout seeks to score any political points, but simply because it documents an emotional fragility that we find ourselves increasingly unable to detach from our national landscape. The personal has always been the political, of course, but in the age of intersectionality, the physical body proves to be the battleground more than ever.
The record itself is scattered with symbolism drawn from the natural world, detailing the hope and exhaustion that nestles within those same vessels – Veirs speaks only for herself, though we might extrapolate the struggle pertaining to the bodies of women in general – and how those emotions coalesce. “Seven Falls” is perhaps the most vulnerable excursion in terms of its honesty, though it is also a highlight from what might be regarded as The Lookout’s softer first half, at least in terms of imagery. It’s here that “Margaret Sanders” sings of being “married to the swell,” dappled in gold and sunlight; here that Sufjan Stevens provides the hushed backing vocals for ‘Watch Fire’, continuing his own rich vein of form, this time as glorious support.
As the record progresses, the same natural elements that flickered and waned begin to sparkle and wax. On “Lightning Rod”, for example, fire is no longer a campsite attraction but something potentially dangerous, borne of a thunderstorm and devouring homes. Even then, its force is irresistible: “You take the heat on the rooftops, you make it sweet, oh please don’t stop… Don’t throw in the towel before you’ve done what you’re called to do.” On closer “Zozobra”, body and element are intertwined now, a rush of hope surged while “the people’s hearts rose with the fire”. Those same flames that were weaponised only moments ago have become a source of nourishment. The power has shifted.
It is tempting to suggest that her experience collaborating on the wonderful case/lang/veirs record in 2016 has strengthened her hand, but the truth is that Laura Veirs has always been this good. In these exhausting times, we just need her more than ever. Any artist who can soothe and inspire at the same time, to sing of the world’s potential for warmth with a chill on her breath, is welcome round these parts. “When it grows darkest, stars come out,” we are told as the album begins to wind down, and if it sounds like simple lyricism about burning gas too far away to heat us now, we are no less grateful for the memory of their light.
The Lookout is out April 13, via Bella Union
Pre-order it here