Having bewitched us with her simple but effective Hush Records debut If You Come To Greet Me three years ago, Beasts Of Seasons finds Portland resident Laura Gibson continuing to alchemically transmute some fairly conventional singer-songwriterisms into spellbinding sketches of precarious humanity. Rooted in a simple finger-picking folk guitar style, these are timeless songs borne out of meditations on mortality. Written while Gibson lived in a house overlooking one of Portland’s oldest cemeteries, this is the sound of someone about to turn 30 and aware perhaps for the first time that their span on the planet is going to be limited.
Admitting to feeling older than the birds, swinging between childlike innocence and aged weariness, Gibson explores empathetic lyrical territory that at times sound as if the words were lifted from an Alice Hoffman novel. The otherworldly static that signals the start of the album is a perfect backdrop to these messages from somewhere in the ether of a misty Oregon fall. Emerging from the dew-heavy air, there’s something about ‘Shadows Of People’ with its simple pluck and strum that goes right for the emotional guts without ever having to make it explicit. By far the longest track here, it offers a parade of once-lived lives moving just beyond your line of vision, representing life at its most fragile. The album’s first four songs form a suite, as it were, that Gibson has dubbed “Communion Songs” – and of these ‘Spirited’ is a touching highlight that paints bucolic pictures against a vaguely Eastern sounding musical backdrop – but it’s the album’s latter segment, “Funeral Songs”, that really bites.
Pivotal track ‘Funeral Song’ is Beasts Of Seasons‘ uncontested highpoint and a neat summation of the work as a whole. Lyrically beautiful, it suggests a much older provenance than the end of the first decade of the 21st century. It’s about letting go; of love, and of those who were called to leave us either through death or the end of a relationship. We can’t tether those we care for as much as emotions would sometimes like us to. And as the brass section strikes up a slowed down Wesleyan elegy you may find it hard to take up her injunction to “spare no sorrow”. Taking on an accusatory tone, there is the stifled anger of a lover scorned in the traditional sounding ‘Where Have All Your Good Words Gone?’ as a once poetic man now bereft of stories gets the spotlight turned on his sudden illiteracy.
Beasts Of Seasons is full of well-directed sorrow, but it never loses a deep sense of beauty and a tentative optimism despite the impermanence that inspired it. You get the impression from the album that Laura Gibson is a gentle soul, but one full of American magical realism and an eye for the subtleties of a life that is forever ebbing away. One unimpressed music blogger described her work as being made for “people who spend too much time drinking tea and looking out of the window,” and as someone who pleads guilty to both I found this an enchanting album.
Amid the noise and thrum of the contemporary world there is a need for a few quiet folk who search out meanings in the stone and lichen-creep of overgrown graveyards. Authenticity is a horrible word, particularly when applied to singer-songwriters, and conjures up images of worthy, proficient dullness. But in this case it’s deserved and meant entirely as a compliment. For an album full of images of death, loss and demise, Beasts Of Seasons left me feeling ever so slightly more alive.
UK release date: 24/02/09; www.myspace.com/lauragibson
‘Shadows On Parade’ [live]
‘Take This Waltz’ [Leonard Cohen cover, live]
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