“Pink champagne/tastes the same,” or so says Kathleen Edwards. Such a minuscule detail, posing as a chorus in the aptly titled “Pink Champagne,” shouldn’t matter. However, such specificity, so emotively transmitted, is part of the reason Edwards’ latest record, Voyageur, handles the naturally gentrified genre of folk-pop with such grace and uniqueness. But then again, when given a record produced by Justin Vernon and featuring such varied guest as John Roderick and Norah Jones, one is almost begging genre lines to be crossed.
Possibly because of Vernon and Edwards collaborating on the boards, Voyageur’s color palette is far deeper than her previous three LPs. She still has the road-worn troubadour trope down pat (Opener “Empty Threat” is still one of the best songs on the record.), but there are some welcome changes of pace here, and some songs are downright outside of folk. “Soft Place to Land” is about as Death Cab for Cutie as one can get, and “Change the Sheets,” if you squint hard enough, resembles Taylor Swift.
But back to that pink champagne thing, for a bit. The tendency might be to call these off-folk cuts from Voyageur a variation on Starbucks-y, adult alternative fare. True enough, “Change the Sheets” would probably work well with a latte. But to insinuate that Edwards is innocuous background music would deny her still-restless heart, moreso ignoring the calmness and confidence with which she bears out such a heart. To say the way she sings, “I used to make you happy/but I don’t know you” on “House Full of Empty Rooms” is just mindless verbiage to go with a placating aura is to almost completely miss the point. Pink champagne may taste the same, but Edwards doesn’t.
A close listen would reveal the folly in missing the point, since Edwards has rarely been this consistently excellent and on a set topic, this time (obviously?) voyages. The first song starts off with an albeit empty threat of large-scale geographic change, and the threats gets progressively less empty from there. First, its personal (“Change the sheets/then change me”), then developmental (“you and I will be sidecars/there to chase down the hard stuff”). Then in a final, somewhat brutal, turn, it’s following a deceptive lover down to hell. Her conviction is always the same in these decisions, and that steadfast commitment to movement makes Voyageur’s lesser movements (“Mint”) seem forgivable. By the time Edwards has found a safe distance from her subjects on what’s sure to be a gem of a live cut “For the Record,” there is a resignation to her fate that feels earned, not slapdash.
Conspicuously, the last line of Voyageur is, “For the record/I only wanted to sing songs.” It’s at once true and also far too modest. Edwards is far surpassing her potential as a songwriter by just playing her songs. Vernon certainly has helped here, but it’s testament to Edwards bearing her soul and not, as she sings in “Chameleon/Comedian,” “just [hiding] behind the songs I write.” There is a rawness here, plumbed by a conviction to move and create that makes Voyageur what it is. In that, maybe Edwards is hiding. Her proclivity for claiming herself less special in her narratives belies just how gifted a songwriter, and artist, she has become with Voyageur, her best work.
Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur tracklist:
- “Empty Threat”
- “A Soft Place to Land”
- “Change the Sheets”
- “House Full of Empty Rooms”
- “Pink Champagne”
- “Going to Hell”
- “For the Record”