Voyager begins with a song called “Empty Threat” in which Canadian singer/songwriter Kathleen Edwards threatens to move to America, adding quickly that “it’s an empty threat.” So what is going on here with the 33-year-old who has dallied with success for nearly a decade? It’s possible she’s at a tipping point; newly divorced but immersed in a new romantic and musical relationship with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and with a new crop of songs that balance sentiment and wry wit, this could be the album that will win her the audience she’s long sought and deserved. Just maybe America is ready to embrace a woman who has been creating music that expands the realm of – ironically - Americana music.
Edwards’ musical direction reflects the changes in her life. Her first 3 albums, according to Edwards, were pigeon-holed as Americana or alt-country although her last release, Asking For Flowers, amped up her sound. Voyager furthers that journey toward a sound that refines her roots, mixes rock, a touch of pop, and the atmospheric indie-folk that Justin Vernon has perfected with his band. In the past Edwards lyrics tended more toward stories of characters she created or pulled from news stories. Here her experience of divorce is a contributing factor as is Vernon’s astute production. “A Soft Place To Land” wraps the broken emotions of a dissolving relationship into beautiful imagery. “I’m looking for a soft place to land, a forest floor or the palms of your hands; Edward’s vocals are mournful but reveal the resiliency that will pull her through dark times. The arrangement mimics the rise and fall of emotions with Vernon’s backing vocals shadowing Edwards’, percussion ebbing and flowing in march-step mode, and violin and cello accompanying piano and guitar. Vernon’s production values are heard most distinctly on “Change the Sheets.” He envelopes Edward’s vocals in lustrous layers of guitar, keyboards, and percussion. “Mint” and “Sidecar” again push Edwards into new territory with arrangements that highlight electric guitar riffs and organ. Interestingly both songs are about moving forward and the potential for new love.
When Edwards’ focus falls directly on divorce her songs become subdued. “House Full of Empty Rooms” is a quiet ballad featuring muted tones of organ, piano, and guitar, that describes the fractured communication of two people used to be close. “Going To Hell” captures the tortuous guilt of divorce; I’m going to hell/in a basket I made/woven from the letters/that spell your name.” Here Edwards allows the music to build to crescendo with Vernon’s shimmering guitar marking the pinnacle of swirling feelings of remorse. Chameleon/Comedian” describes the art of hiding pain behind a veneer of normalcy.
Particularly poignant is “Pink Champagne” a recounting of a wedding day in the aftermath of divorce.
Besides Vernon, Edwards is joined by an adept band including members of Bon Iver and the remarkable Norah Jones on backing vocals on the albums final track. Having Vernon by her side can only help in bringing Edwards more recognition. Her songs are smart, funny, sad, making Voyager an journey worth taking.