Laura Veirs knows who she is and what she does, and with The Lookout she returns after a long solo absence sounding as polished and assured as ever. Aside from her participation in the case/lang/veirs triangle that produced 2016’s case/lang/veirs album, we last heard a Laura Veirs record in 2013. It’s been awhile, but Veirs hasn’t stopped working and she hasn’t suddenly decided to wear a new hat. Rather, her music retains her familiar voice and lyrical style while including some new sonic inspirations that keep her sound fresh.
Coincidentally Laura Veirs released a Spotify playlist of inspirations for The Lookout, and while it’s largely what you would expect – Neil Young, Laura Marling, Sufjan Stevens – there are a few inclusions of artists like David Bowie, Frank Ocean and Alice Coltrane that are not immediately similar in sound to Veirs’ work. However, that playlist turns out to be a pretty clear parallel to her latest album. While most of it sounds as you would expect, she throws in a few effects and rhythmic experiments that create a more dynamic and subtly psychedelic listening experience that reflects the breadth of her influences.
The album is suffused with a warm generosity of spirit that lends itself to a serene listening experience. Even when Veirs sings on “Seven Falls” that she “tries to be kind, but still sometimes [is] cold,” the song showcases her light vocals that easily float and soar out of her, and which make up the bulk of the appeal of her music. Nature imagery also abounds, with back-to-back charmers “The Meadow” and “The Canyon” using the titular locations to consider a place of “no fear, no hate” and our own inevitable mortality, respectively. The specter of mortality and death appears earlier in the album, with the opener “Margaret Sands” joining the canon of morbid songs with people’s names as the title (“Eleanor Rigby,” “Richard Cory”). While the subject matter may appear miserable – Veirs sings and considers the bones of Margaret Sands as they now lay “married to the swell of the ocean” – the execution of the song is never grim. Veirs manages to make the prospect of your own eventual death and disintegration feel like a natural, maybe even beautiful, event.
The album’s highlights include an early track and single, “Everybody Needs You,” which immediately makes an impression by venturing into unexpected sonic territory. In addition to the slightly darker sound of the music, the effects take it farther away from the acoustic, natural vibe the rest of the album emanates. The lyrics are a little more abstract than we are used to on a Veirs track with lines like “two koi fish, turnin’ in the sky, one’s in your brain, the other’s in your thigh.” The final two tracks focus on the idea of hope in a time of darkness (a common theme through most albums lately, huh?), with “When It Grows Darkest” being a less trite version of many “stay positive” aphorisms you’ve heard. “Zozobra” is named after the burning of Zozobra, or “Old Man Gloom,” a 50-ft high marionette in Sante Fe that stands to represent humanity’s failings and faults. When Veirs sings that “the people’s hopes rose with the fire,” the act of burning a giant cartoonish effigy becomes evocative and a little cathartic and not at all creepy which is a small accomplishment in itself.
Ultimately, The Lookout rewards careful listening. If half-heartedly listening to the album, it’s easy to let it drift in and out of your ears and mind without leaving much of a trace. If you take the time to listen to Veirs’ lyrics and notice the subtle instrumentation and tender but wise vocal delivery, the album becomes a delicate treat to savor and appreciate.