Rating: 3/5Kathleen Edwards already has one of the most consistent discographies of any recent artist to come out of the Great White North. Following in similar (though more modern) footsteps as fellow countrymen Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot, she’s steadily built upon the singer-songwriter archetype, continually expanding the boundaries of that definition, from the welcoming country-tinged tracks on 2008’s excellent Asking for Flowers to the jaded redemption-by-way-of-cynicism on 2005’s Back to Me. With a production hand from newfound collaborator and love interest Justin Vernon, Voyageur pushes her creative vision even further, resulting in her most polished, slickly-produced album yet. However, a tension exists throughout the record between the Edwards who delivered plainspoken, earthly narratives alongside simple guitar lines and the artist who’s looking to deliver a more ambitious sound. It’s a tension that can conceivably be chalked up to the presence of Vernon. Many of the tracks revel in the reverb overflowing from last year’s Bon Iver. There are times when the sonics work wonders, elevating Edwards’ vocals and arrangements above their simplistic structures.
Album opener “Empty Threat” works around a basic two-chord configuration, but significantly opens up with the early introduction of lap steel, piano and light synths. With its lyrics signifying new beginnings and blank slates, it’s a fitting introduction to the varied stylistic diversions that follow. The many layers of instruments and effects work well on first single “Change the Sheets.” Alongside a bouncy electric keyboard and gentle electric guitar, Edwards’ voice shines, moving along with a slick and sultry confidence, elevating into falsetto while leading into the chorus. “Chameleon/Comedian,” arguably the finest track here, mixes echoing harmonies along with a bright acoustic guitar, revealing a more homespun approach to composition which slowly builds into an affecting, loud catharsis. It’s on these tracks, which compose most of the record’s first half, where Edwards seems comfortable with her new creative vision, easily blending her folk leanings with a more refined sense of production.
The blend doesn’t always work though; too often, it results in a murky mess of instrumentation, leaving one to wonder what the demo tracks, stripped of the effects and layering, would have sounded like. “Sidecar” is all guitar and synth fuzz, creating a strange Wilco-esque bit of pop-folk that never really connects; which is a shame, because lyrically and melodically, it’s one of the finest songs Edwards has put to paper. “Going to Hell” takes a similar approach, building from a gentle intro into a manic guitar solo and flurry of backing vocals. The problem with tracks such as these is not that they have so many layers, but rather that these layers collide instead of coalesce. The array of sonics in each arrangement often feels forced or overstuffed. Though the reverb and echo do create some space on some early tracks, as the album wears on, the arrangements feel increasingly crowded. Even on “Pink Champagne,” the addition of whirring synths runs contrary to the otherwise barebones mix.
Though Voyageur certainly has some highlights, especially early on, the absence of a cohesive, uniting vision hinders its overall quality. Edwards seems to be at war with herself (and the arrangements), struggling and only occasionally succeeding in reconciling her inherently Americana brand of songwriting with the more audacious set of effects. There’s a beautiful album here somewhere, but it’s veiled by too much studio trickery.