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SPIN Essentials

Kathleen Edwards, ‘Voyageur’ (Zoe/Rounder)

SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: January 17, 2012
Label: Zoe/Rounder

Ain’t love grand? Not according to Voyageur, the gently devastating fourth album from Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards. Smoldering resentment, dangerous lust, flaming anger, and, occasionally, intoxicating joy, ebb and flow with dizzying quickness in these unsparing vignettes of relationships gone mostly wrong. Injecting startling urgency into utterly familiar scenarios, this is easily Edwards best work to date, a stunning combination of beautiful melodies and hair-raising sentiments.

Voyageur is the child of divorce, following the end of Edwards’ marriage to musical partner Colin Cripps and subsequent collaboration with new boyfriend Justin Vernon, a.k.a. Bon Iver, who co-produces with her here, while also playing a slew of instruments and contributing backing vocals. No tabloid-worthy knowledge is required to access the universal emotions Edwards evokes so eloquently, however. And while it might be tempting (and fun) to reprogram these tracks to create a linear narrative of romantic disaster and rebirth, the album, as intended to be heard, deftly captures the whiplash mood swings of a volatile relationship, showing how giddy exuberance and bitter despair can intertwine. With an irresistible caffeinated tempo, “Change the Sheets” initially comes across eager and sunny, but the lyrics hint at impending disaster, with Edwards exclaiming, “Here is the truth / I used to be fun / Go ahead, run, run, run, run,” signaling a massive storm on the horizon.

The simple act of tackling a bouncy pop tune like “Change the Sheets” suggests a nervy departure for Edwards, whose default mode always has been languid ballads delivered in a melancholy voice. There’s still plenty of those on Voyageur, but they feel nothing like what’s come before. Previous albums resided primarily in an alt-country comfort zone, using spare, twangy textures to frame portraits of beleaguered underdogs, which could be unsentimental to the point of coldness. Here the arrangements are emphatically less austere, and the seductive production has a gorgeously ambient quality, with edges softened and melodies implied as often as filled out. The mournful “Pink Champagne,” a self-lacerating wedding-day remembrance that finds Edwards confessing, “I can be cruel / So can you,” deploys a small army of guitars and keyboards, yet never sounds crowded, exuding a delicate neon glow to underscore her sorrow.

Though she’s moved on from her rootsy stylings and finally shed any lingering Tom Petty inflections, Edwards the writer remains a folkie at heart, making every blunt word count. On “Chameleon/Comedian,” she nails the frustration of trying to connect with a lover who’s afraid of intimacy, sighing, “You’re a comedian and you hide behind your funny face,” only to betray an irritated edge by song’s end: “I don’t need a punch line / Every time.” The hushed “A Soft Place to Land” multiplies the sadness and anger, with Edwards murmuring sullenly, “Calling it quits / You think this is easy?” She later accuses her companion of “calling me names, not to my face.” It’s like eavesdropping on one side of a final, bridge-burning argument — and it’s not hard to fill in the other half.

Voyageur isn’t all gloom and bile. In the unnervingly peppy “Sidecar,” Edwards radiates genuine delight at finding a kindred spirit, singing, “You let me show you / All of the monsters I was holding onto / Get up, get up, it’s going to be good!” But like the many lows, the sporadic highs are so intense that it’s difficult to believe any mood can last for long.

In any case, the meaner, down-and-dirty moments here are the most thrilling. “For the Record,” the leisurely, seven-minute closing track, turns farewell into a serious “fuck you” when she sneers quietly, “So hang me up on your cross / For the record, I only wanted to sing songs.” After all the harrowing episodes depicted on Voyageur, it would be the right thing to wish Kathleen Edwards undiluted happiness. But strife suits her.