While the repeated stylistic left turns of artists like Radiohead and Kendrick Lamar are exciting, a long and gradual artistic maturation can be just as satisfying. Laura Veirs’ nearly 20-year career has quietly been one of the most impressive examples of the latter over the past two decades, and by demonstrating everything that Veirs has learned along the way, her new album “The Lookout” is her most rewarding work yet.
Veirs’ early albums modestly claimed to be nothing more than millennial musings about cowgirl stories and country roads, but her immense talent seeped through songs like the folktronica “John Henry Lives” and the ominous “Up The River.” The dark undertones of these early tracks surfaced on 2004’s wintry “Carbon Glacier,” which established Laura Veirs as a creative force who makes up for her limited vocal range with a clear, raw voice and equally expressive music to back it. Since dabbling in pop on the mediocre “Year of Meteors,” Veirs has not looked back. She blended lush strings with folk on her breakout “July Flame,” and she experimented with a pairing of electric and acoustic guitar, self harmonizing and even psychedelic jazz on 2013’s “Warp and Weft.”
What’s most brilliant about Laura Veirs’ career-spanning progression as an artist is that, with each step, she hasn’t lost any of her best qualities. Laura Veirs’ tenth studio album “The Lookout,” then, is yet another fantastic culmination of her efforts. The opening track “Margaret Sands” demonstrates this immediately: Beginning as a straightforward folk tune, the song ushers in Veirs’ signature ominous tone about halfway through with a deep baritone almost indistinguishable from a cello. e. Even more representative of Laura Veirs’ sound is lead single “Everybody Needs You,” with an electronic touch of synths, lush string arrangements and an echoing acoustic solo reminiscent of My Morning Jacket.
Here and throughout the rest of “The Lookout” we find Veirs’ voice at its most mature. True to form, her familiar vocal rawness isn’t lost. Rather, she moves back and forth between such clarity and an ethereal falsetto absent from her previous works. The result is, more often than not, hauntingly beautiful, as in the outro of her atmospheric cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Mountains of the Moon,” or in the tender “The Meadow.”
Tucker Martine, Veirs’ longtime producer and husband who has worked with The Decemberists, Modest Mouse and Sufjan Stevens, is also at his best, masterfully permeating “The Lookout” with a dreamy aura that harkens back to “Carbon Glacier” and was missed on Veirs’ subsequent works. Most impressively, Martine and Veirs achieve all of this with just the right amount of instrumentation. “The Lookout” is not minimalistic, but it’s clear that all the unnecessary elements of her previous records have been stripped away, leaving only what is absolutely needed to achieve its goal. Even on “When It Grows Dark,” one of the most dense songs on the record, each instrument and its purpose can easily be picked out, a testament to Martine’s expert production.
The only seriously disappointing moment on the record is “Watch Fire,” which features Veirs’ longtime tourmate and collaborator Sufjan Stevens. The track is uninteresting and features one repeated line from Stevens — the singer behind some of the millennium’s best records, including 2015’s somber “Carrie and Lowell” — leaving much to be desired.
Watching Laura Veirs’ gradual progression as an artist over the past two decades has been consistently rewarding, and “The Lookout” is no exception. While somehow still feeling stripped back, her tenth album is her most complete effort to date, and one that might well be one of the best records of the year.