Vashti Bunyan says that her third full-length album, Heartleap, will also be her last. Given her rate of production to this point, we have no reason to doubt her. Bunyan’s first record, Just Another Diamond Day, came out in 1970 and quickly disappeared; later, it was rediscovered, developing a devoted cult among admirers of obscure folk. Following that renewed interest, she dusted off the old Martin and recorded her second album, Lookaftering, in 2005. So that’s three full-lengths in 44 years, which can be looked at in a few different ways. Given the nature of Bunyan’s art, I’m inclined to praise her patience and her willingness to make music only when she feels like has something to say; in the era of the attention economy, choosing not to put work in front of people, to live a life away from the spotlight, can be its own kind of statement. And if things turn out like she says, Bunyan goes out on a high note: Heartleap is a subtle and beautiful album with a simmering intensity, a perfect match of her hushed delivery and sharply observed vignettes that move between memories, dreams, and moments of quiet wonder.
Heartleap would be a poetic place to end because, in 2014, Bunyan’s style of music has no particular cultural currency. In the middle of the last decade, when the indie world was enamored with the Incredible String Band and The Anthology of American Folk Music and acoustic music that was both familiar and strange was in vogue, Bunyan was drafted as a kind of godmother of a small movement. Her initial obscurity obviously added to her aura and Diamond Day became one of those records passed around like a secret; by the time she made the Prospect Hummer EP with Animal Collective in 2005, her place in the landscape was secure, and Lookaftering showed that she was capable of picking up where she left off. But Heartleap has no significant context surrounding it—it’s just a record, one that doesn’t have the burden of making up for lost time. And the facts of its creation—Bunyan wrote and recorded much of it alone, over the course of seven years—underscore the point, making it feel like a low-stakes private dispatch, one destined to reach the people it needs to reach.
No one sounds like Vashti Bunyan, in part because most people would be afraid to. Her voice is defined by its limitations, hovering between singing and whispering, but it’s also an instrument of great expressivity. Because she sings without vibrato in a quavering register, it’s often described as “childlike.” This surely had something to do with her appeal in the mid-2000s freak-folk moment—Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective, in particular, forged an aesthetic out of regression, privileging instinct and raw imagination. But Bunyan’s lyrics tell a different story, one of graceful maturity and wisdom.
Bunyan has said in interviews that she was intimidated when she was starting out because she felt she could never measure up to Joni Mitchell, which is fair. But the truth is that Mitchell, for all her genius, could never do what Bunyan does: she crafts miniature worlds, settings where small gestures can be imbued with great meaning. “Mother” offers an image of a girl watching through a crack in the door while her mother, unaware that she’s being observed, dresses and sings softly to herself. It’s the kind of moment that burns into all of our memories, where nothing really “happens” but somehow we remember every detail; these snapshots are where our awareness of the world and our place in it expands, just a little, and few artists capture them as well as Vashti Bunyan.
The act of perception is a recurring theme (“The Boy”), as is the limitation of language (“Gunpowder”), but the overriding subject is the mystery of life itself, how we live and die, what it feels like to be trapped inside of a body, how we balance our need for human connection and our need for solitude. The backdrop for Bunyan’s songs could hardly be simpler and more minimal—bits of guitar and synth, most of which she plays herself—but it’s all beautifully produced and clear, the instruments doing what they need to do to get the songs across and nothing more.
“I do remember what an old friend told me/ He said ‘don’t you go worrying about me, I’m only sad as I want to be’,” she sings in “Holy Smoke”, and it’s a fitting takeaway from this album, and indeed Bunyan’s recorded output as a whole. Her work is a testament to the power of even the quietest music to help us feel things deeply, an experience that lasts for a few minutes that we can return to for a lifetime.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1uNBp1f