Veirs approaches chaos and instability with warmth.
In the five years since the fantastic Warp and Weft, Laura Veirs has worked with Sufjan Stevens on Carrie and Lowell and released a self-titled album with k.d. lang and Neko Case as supergroup case/lang/veirs. Twenty years into her career, Veirs shows no signs of slowing down, and while her 10th solo album The Lookout may not provide many surprises, it further solidifies her niche.
The album moves from a comfortably familiar start to successful experiments with more complex arrangements. For the most part, Veirs’ songs follow a simple singer-songwriter pattern. Each opens on gentle acoustic guitar paired with her sharp yet airy vocal. Upbeat albeit unobtrusive percussion gives them movement, unhurried songs still building toward a message. In opener “Margaret Sands,” Veirs strategically places her most delightful offering front and center. Jangly picking and strumming is layered with rising vocal harmonies to mimic the familiarity of an old folk song. “Watch Fire,” featuring Stevens trading vocals with Veirs, is even more upbeat, balancing buoyant picking and keyboard lines. This joyous arrangement lifts the cautionary lyrics: “There’s no mistaking the wolf for the wind/ He’s been here before/ And he’ll be here again.”
Those nods to folk are replaced with straight country roots on lead single “Everybody Needs You,” which features lush slide guitar, loping percussion and an angelic turn from Veirs. “Mountains of the Moon” and “Heavy Petals” carry on the slide guitar, the former adding wavering organ. The Lookout most consistently sees Veirs examine the chaos and impermanence of the world. “Heavy Petals” literally pits flowers against the inevitable wind – “Painted winds will come and we will fall/ Through sunlight unserious we’ll call” – yet portrays these delicate petals as full of “Tenderest rage that no one can see.” Flowers are clearly Veirs’ favored symbols for fragility, as she echoes on emotional piano ballad “The Meadow,” “And we knew it wouldn’t last/ It was beautiful,” as strings and angelic vocals converge to haunting effect.
Despite the influx of country tracks like “Seven Falls,” latter half offerings such as “Canyon” buck expectations for the album. The track opens much like the others, with strumming and airy vocals, but Veirs divides the song into distinct sections. The verses are full of jangly picking and references to travel; about halfway through the track, horns rise and a deep bass takes what could have been a simple song about “blowing through the canyon” to wholly uncharacteristic places. “Lightning Rod” adds reverb to Veirs’ vocals and backing children’s voices, as the marching drum beat and lazy electric guitar riff stretch out the slow burner.
In all respects, though, The Lookout follows the patterns of Veirs’ nine previous albums. Folk and the occasional country influences are on display in Veirs’ acoustic arrangements, as her tender vocals recall classic folk ballads. And, as usual, the album was produced by Veirs’ husband, Tucker Martine. He proves to be adept at Veirs’ style, as well as on tracks that push her slightly out of her comfort zone, as on the Eastern-tinged “When It Grows Darkest” with its layer upon layer of strings. While efforts to be a call to action or to appreciate the world are too subdued to achieve their goal, the album still shows Veirs to be a graceful songwriter who approaches even chaos and instability with warmth.