Since the very beginning of her career, Laura Stevenson has had a foot in two worlds, caught between her punk rock attitude and her indie folk sensibilities. Casual listeners will note high energy singles that found her in the spotlight, like “Master of Art” or “Jellyfish,” but her album tracks have always carried a much more delicate and sentimental sting. After years of releasing the kind of inventive guitar rock that young women are just now receiving proper recognition for, she has taken a step back. With her tender fifth album, The Big Freeze, Stevenson has channeled her folk influences, crafting a gorgeous departure from an already divergent body of work.
Right from the onset, the haunting, childlike vocals of stunning opener “Lay Back, Arms Out,” tip off listeners that The Big Freeze is a bit of an awakening for Laura Stevenson. These tracks are stripped down, leaving us with a barebones window into a vast emotional journey. With it, she’s traded aggressive guitar riffs for crisp harmonies, as with sweeping, buzzing folk tune “Living Room, NY,” slow burn, dive bar rocker “Rattle at Will,” and twangy reverie “Perfect,” which borders on a classic country dirge. The unassuming acoustic ballad “Hawks” even makes the most of a strategically placed string section. Stevenson is pulling from many varied stylistic avenues, but much of the album carries with it a reverent, almost spiritual flair to it, calling to mind the subtle grace of Judee Sill or Leonard Cohen.
Still, The Big Freeze isn’t without its booming, energetic moments. Minimalist, lingering rock anthem “Value Inn” and bouncy, upbeat pop number “Dermatillomania” are among the album’s most remarkable cuts, as Stevenson truly lets loose and gives way to the emotional immediacy of her heartfelt exploration. Even the piercing mood piece “Big Deep” and the drifting, swaying “Low Slow” are simply a gradual build to an explosive climax. It’s in these moments where Stevenson allows herself to be swept off in a wave of vulnerability, as in the melancholy, warbled guitars of “Hum”: “You are burdened by only your dangerous mind.”
Laura Stevenson has clearly forged The Big Freeze on her own terms. She may have sanded down the rugged edges, but she’s no less of an undeniable rock star. Working through a period of loneliness and isolation, Stevenson has produced some of her finest work to date, spinning entrancing yarns about the seemingly commonplace psychological anguish of everyday existence. But she doesn’t wallow in despair; this is a statement of unfaltering hope. “I’ll be alright by myself tonight,” she sings in the album’s final breath. This may not have been the record fans expected from Laura Stevenson, but it’s nothing short of absorbing, a true mark of an artist who’s more than eager to embrace change.