On 'Found Light,' Laura Veirs documents newfound freedom with attentive awe
There is a hyper-alert, naturalistic sensuality to the 12th album by Portland songwriter Laura Veirs. A new lover has "pomegranate fingertips"; she's "a burning leaf" stirred by the latent light of stars and buffeted by the distant swirl of the planets; the smell of Eucalyptus trees on the street in California fling her back to her youth, "way before I knew ya."
The "ya" is, presumably, Veirs' ex-husband, producer Tucker Martine, whom she divorced nearly three years ago. He worked on all of her previous records, right down to selecting the songs to work on and sculpting the sound. Back then, Veirs told WTF host Marc Maron in a recent interview, she "didn't really care" about what material they would work on. For her first album as a newly single woman, though, she did: "It was the first time I was really asking myself, 'What do I want this music to sound like?' " Found Light vibrates with that sense of potential, and finds Veirs, 48, curiously surveying the balance between the bitter weight of experience and the rewards that might come from remaining attuned to wonder.
Veirs and Martine had owned a recording studio together. He kept it in the divorce, so she started writing Found Light in a local arts center, her first foray into DIY recording more than 25 years after she began her career in a post-riot grrrl punk band. It gave her work a feeling of "newness," Veirs told the Guardian in 2020. Eventually she took the songs to producer and friend Shahzad Ismaily, who Veirs has said empowered her to make decisions as a co-producer and collaborator. They haven't enacted a radical overhaul, which is to say Veirs has always been an indomitably strong artist, whoever's at the helm. Her guitar playing retains its lucid, refractive beauty; despite her recent strife, she still has one of the kindest and most comforting voices in contemporary songwriting, high and gentle but full of presence and wisdom. (This sudden independence gives the album a kinship with Nina Nastasia's forthcoming, sublime Riderless Horse, her first album made without her late collaborator and partner Kennan Gudjonsson — both uneasy but full-throated acts of self-reclamation.)
The differences — and the sense of Veirs staking out new territory — are, generally, subtler. The production is pared back and more intuitive, imbued with a sense of interconnectivity between every instrument. (Part of her journey these past few years, she told Maron, was investigating psychedelics and becoming beguiled by the mycelium network, and perhaps you feel its expansive influence here.) Veirs played guitar and sang simultaneously for the first time (another source of empowerment, she has said) and she often holds a note to let her voice haze into just another texture, while the ruminative flow of her playing might echo the productive rhythms of swimming through open water. On "Signal," she feels like smoke: "I'm curling and I'm rising / Dispersing into the sky / You can't touch me," she sings, as she along with the soft cymbals and pitter-patter drums melt into a bright, glistening gauze, dappled with what could be whale song. The effect is one of being quietly unbound, dissolving old borders and finding new shapes in the ether, and her command never falters.
Veirs is the daughter of scientists and once intended to become a geologist, and Found Light opens with her taking stock in typically methodical fashion. "Well, summer has gone," she sings in her bright, matter-of-fact way, echoed by the sisterly tones of This Is the Kit's Kate Stables, before cataloging the passing of time — the longer shadows, the waxing and waning moons — perhaps as some small way of attempting to control it. There's also her list "of ways to be free / Of ways to let go / Of ways to be loved / The things I now know," a strangely distanced recounting of newly unearthed self-knowledge that she considers alongside these natural phenomena. But from then on, thankfully, Found Light plunges us headlong into Veirs' discoveries, which she elucidates with trademark nuance as well as a newly honed way with a gut punch.
Veirs finds freedom and conflict in the literal unshackling: "I pawned my wedding ring / At the Silver Lining / I felt sad / I also felt a weight go flying," she sings on "Ring Song," her voice dissolving once again on a long, sustained note. As is one of the defining qualities of Found Light, she gives herself an inspiring amount of space in the arrangement: nylon-stringed guitar and the faintest glitter of piano lapping like calm waves on a shore. Then she seems to self-flagellate for not seeing what was in front of her eyes in her former relationship: "Maybe next time I'll wake up / When the hall of mirrors gleams," she sings, and the neat piano motif comes apart, Ismaily's now freeform, skittish playing nearly radiant with anger. But the fierce clarity of Veirs' writing wards against making the same mistakes again. On "Eucalyptus," a spare and angry song rooted around a tachycardic synth pulse, she admires the trees on her morning run: "Eucalyptus smells sweet / And with its gray-green leaves it's beautiful / And like you / It'll drop its branches suddenly."
She also finds freedom in sex, in songs that constitute some of the album's strongest lyricism. The electrified atmosphere of "Naked Hymn" comes largely from Charlotte Greve's husky, meandering saxophone lines, which Veirs follows with an account of an interaction that moves from awkwardly domestic ("Black socks on the only thing left") to a reawakening ("Sappho's choir inside my mouth / Praiseful after years of drought") to true rebirth: "By candlelight I release / What's let go of me," she sings, as Greve's playing becomes less inhibited. While the song may have a slightly awkward refrain ("touch has a memory," Veirs repeats, a line from John Keats' poem "What Can I Do to Drive Away") it has no musical center, only a sense of ceaseless reaching towards something new.
Better still is "Time Will Show You," a heavy reckoning with the enormity of what Veirs' post-divorce experiences have shown her, girded by Sam Amidon's fiddle. "Strong hands touch you again / You get f***ed and f*** and then / Better men you'd never meet / Spoon you in Airbnbs," Veirs sings with conversational frankness. You would read a whole memoir based on just those lines. Their brilliance is mostly down to Veirs' unflinching lens, but also how they might subvert misbegotten expectations of a 40-something mom of two. (Incidentally, these highs bring to mind the latest album by Joan Shelley, another songwriter who seldom gets credit for her earthy, wonderful command of sexuality.) Though perhaps Veirs feels it, too; the unexpected delight of these encounters become another bulwark against refusing to see reality for what it really is: "You invested in illusions, and you stop," she sings.
Even when you sack off illusions, the question remains as to how honest to be. "Give but don't give too much / Of yourself away," Veirs sings repeatedly on "Seaside Haiku," in which she observes a woman flying a kite on the beach, an image of freedom, tethered. She tries out the line in various voices, as if finding a level of exposure that feels comfortable to her. Cautious as the lyrics may be, the song is one of a few moments on Found Light where Veirs indulges her rarely spotted rockier side: She makes beautifully subtle use of a burnished, fuzzed-out riff that simmers and catches, blooming into an incandescent warped cloud, and recalls the subtleties of latter-day Phil Elverum. Here, perhaps, is a more literal breaking of inhibitions: Another highlight, closer "Winter Windows," is a tough rocker possessed of a rhythm that bobs like a boxer spoiling for their shot: "I am puzzling out / Our two lives apart," she sings, ready for the world. You'd take a whole album of these, too.
That said, in that WTF interview, Veirs said she was increasingly leaning towards wanting to make (and hear) instrumental music that didn't prescribe how anyone should feel listening to it. ("Komorebi" is the only such song here, a blur of Reichian guitar and blurring horns that grows dense and fuzzy.) There is an almost psychedelic sense of liberation there too: a parent who found freedom after her marriage fell apart now staking her claim to keep living beyond definition.
Moreover, Veirs told Maron that she didn't even know if she would make another record. In this new phase of life, she said, "even the changes are changing." If Found Light is her last, it is a handsome coda to an fiercely underrated songwriting catalog. Intimate and profound, it is a powerful document of self-discovery, Veirs' own synth-pop Pilgrim at Tinker Creek documenting a new cycle of life with attentive awe.
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