Throughout Laura Veirs’ career as a renowned recording artist, there have been at least three prominent consistencies in her work.
First is her dedication to her craft. Veirs, who lives in Portland, famously writes multiple versions of songs, sometimes numbering a dozen or more, until she believes she has it just right. The result is a catalog of precise and pretty indie-folk-pop tunes that are as lean as they are charming.
Second is Veirs’ lyrical love of the natural world. A graduate of Carleton College’s geology program, her 11 albums are littered with lines about fading constellations and fields in bloom, icy streams and windswept trails, thunderclouds and topographic lines, lowland forests, glacial runoff, bears, boulders and branches just out of reach. Every Veirs album is a wide-eyed wander through a vibrant world.
The third constant in Veirs’ music career has been Tucker Martine, the Grammy-nominated producer best known for his work with The Decemberists and Bill Frisell. Martine has produced almost all of Veirs’ records — including her 2016 collaboration with Neko Case and k.d. lang — and somewhere along the way, they married and had two children, too.
That’s important to know, because Veirs’ new album is framed largely by her divorce from Martine, which the couple announced last November. Written and recorded before the final split, My Echo is like a transmission from inside a disintegrating relationship, heavy with all the hurt and hope and fear and frustration that comes with it.
Despite the tumult, those aforementioned consistencies of Veirs’ work remain unwaveringly present on My Echo. “Memaloose Island” is airy and twangy, with Veirs singing about crackling leaves and sparkling rivers in between verses about death and rebirth. “Another Space and Time” imagines an alternate universe where climate change isn’t ravaging the earth and screens don’t dominate our lives. “What do the gurus say?” Veirs sings alongside a clever bossa nova beat. “If you’re able to do nothing you’ll be doing OK.” And then there’s the album’s first single, “Burn Too Bright,” which was inspired by the death of beloved Oregon-based producer Richard Swift. Veirs says she wrote 14 versions of it before choosing this one, which features a sturdy string section, simmering tension and a healthy dose of punk spirit.
There’s also a set of songs on My Echo that dig into the painful reality of a relationship on the rocks. The most unguarded of the bunch is “Turquoise Walls,” a song with a sprightly feel that belies its lyrics, which plainly describe a sleepless night spent wondering where your partner is, and who they’re with. In just over two-and-a-half minutes, Veirs expertly steers the song’s emotional tenor from fear to anger to devastation to self-doubt to regret and, finally, to a reasoned conclusion. It’s quite a ride.
Elsewhere, “Brick Layer” is a beautiful nylon-stringed ballad about building walls and then breaking them down (over and over again), and “I Sing to the Tall Man” makes the most of its sparse arrangement: mostly piano and an undulating trombone, which leaves plenty of room for Veirs’ whispered vocal. “Come along and rest in my song,” she sings, as if she’s trying to convince herself. “Nothing’s wrong.”
Given what we know now, those lines feel a bit heartbreaking. On the other hand, it’s heartening to hear her acknowledging and even embracing impermanence and the unknown on My Echo. The first song on the album is “Freedom Feeling,” and its first line is “I don’t know where I am going.” Whether or not that was a purposeful decision, it seems telling.
The same can be said for the album’s closing track, “Vapor Trails,” which features both a reference to My Morning Jacket and a pitch-perfect guest vocal by that band’s frontman, Jim James. But it’s Veirs who sings the song’s centerpiece couplet: “Outside the sky keeps changing forever. Reminds me a lot of you and me.”
In a September profile of Veirs, The Guardian reported that she has much of a new record already written and is self-recording for the first time, without Martine handling production. Because change happens, even to the most consistent among us. It will be interesting to hear where Veirs goes with her music, and how My Echo fits into the journey.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.