Laura Veirs’s new album, The Lookout, begins with a run of four very strong tracks. Opener Maragret Sands, which features backing vocals from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, is built on Veirs’s strummed nylon-string guitar, with delicate touches of piano and lead guitar. A minute and a half in, though, the song takes a more menacing turn during an instrumental passage underpinned by a low, droney synth (I think it’s a synth, anyway). This subtly experimental sonic approach extends into single Everybody Needs You, where Veirs’s voice is multitracked, modulated and processed with echo. Tucker Martine (Veirs’s husband and long-term producer) surrounds her with the pingy delays of analogue keyboards and snatches of electric and acoustic guitar, topped off with a descending violin phrase that answers the chorus melody. Earlier Viers songs have played with these textures, but I’ve not heard anything from her that jumps so confidently into this territory.
More traditionally Veirsian, if perhaps a little more 1970s country rock than usual, is the lovely Seven Falls. This time, the arrangement is based around pedal steel and electric guitar arpeggios (it’s a little R.E.M., actually), showing how adaptable Veirs and Martine’s approach is – each song is given just what it needs and no more, by players who have been cast for their ability to play the right thing for the song. Seven Falls itself is probably my favourite on the record, not least for the indelible line “how can a child of the sun be so cold?” The matching of a resonant, evocative phrase to a melody line that seems to amplify the lyric’s meaning, as if the phrase always existed within the tune and was just waiting to be discovered, hasn’t always been a feature of Veirs’s writing, and the increasing prevalence of this mode of writing suggests (to me, anyway) a deepening and maturing of her perspective. Writing lyrics that are simple and relatable but simultaneously acute and penetrating isn’t something many songwriters can pull off, so this recent turn in Veirs’s work is impressive.
The next track is a cover of the Grateful Dead’s Mountains of the Moon, a somewhat fey piece of acoustic psychedelia from 1969’s Aoxomoxoa. It seems Veirs and Martine are both long-term Deadheads: they realised only recently that they were at the same concert at Red Rocks, Colorado, 13 years before they met, which would have been during the late 1980s, when the Dead were at their late commercial peak after the success of Touch of Grey. Rather touchingly, Veirs learned to play the song as a Father’s Day present for Martine, and she does a more than creditable job with it.
The first side ends with the brief, delicately beautiful Heavy Petals. This song feels like something Veirs could have done at any point in her career, but she’d not have sung it this convincingly; for me, The Lookout is the first Laura Veirs record where her voice, previously somewhat monotone and inexpressive, is never a barrier to enjoying the songs.
The title track begins the slightly spottier side two. A stompy, cowboy-chord track, it’s enlivened by a string arrangement that once again has that odd Tucker Martine string sound. How is he doing that? Recording the violins and violas using DIs? Running the acoustic signal through compressors and overdriving them? It’s a completely signature sound that I’ve never heard any other producer create, but it’s all over Veirs’s work from the last few albums (including case/lang/veirs).
The Canyon is a song of two halves: a meandering acoustic verse, performed on what sounds like an open-tuned and amplified nylon-string guitar, that is succeeded by an atmospheric instrumental section with an overdriven guitar riff. A cut-and-shut job like this shouldn’t really work, but actually it’s great – one of my favourites on the album. The waltz-time Lightning Rod compares its subject to Ben Franklin, “drawing fire from the clouds”. It’s another striking image. When it Grows Darkest features what sounds like electric sitar as well as prominent bass guitar and Veirs’s picked nylon-string to create a deceptive, very cool 5/4 groove. Threading a compelling melody over an odd metre, ignoring the bar lines and letting the melody just flow, is really hard; the temptation is to observe the bar lines so rigidly that the melody sounds stilted. When it Grows Darkest sounds very natural, and I didn’t work out that the song was in 5/4 until I’d heard it a few times already.
The Lookout has only a few missteps – and obviously these are just my personal issues with the record, anyway. I’m one of those who think Sufjan Stevens shouldn’t be allowed near a microphone under any circumstances, so his unpleasantly strained, whispery falsetto is a major blot on Watch Fire, which would have been more successful performed by almost any other singer. The Meadow’s sparse piano accompaniment doesn’t really hold my interest, although the song itself isn’t a dead loss. I find the overdriven electric guitar tone of Zozobra distracting and a little overbearing in the context of the song. It tends to fight with the ambient feedback part in the background, which is largely happening in the same octave and carries a lot of the same frequency content as the lead guitar. The result of the two clashing parts is messy, and not in a way that I think Viers and Martine indended.
These are minor reservations, though. Overall, I’d still say this is the best Laura Veirs record I’ve heard (I should say, I’ve not heard all of them – nothing before 2004’s Carbon Glacier). With her lyrics getting more acute and deeper with each record and her voice becoming a more expressive and flexible instrument, there’s really no reason to assume the next album won’t be better still.