For an album written in the aftermath of the 2016 US election, Laura Veirs’ ‘The Lookout’ is surprisingly non-confrontational. “I’m addressing what’s happening around me with the chaos of post-election America, the racial divides in our country, and a personal reckoning with the realities of midlife,” she says in the album’s accompanying press materials. Her description of the subject matter suggests ‘The Lookout’ could stray into uncharacteristically bleak territory, but instead, it sounds and feels like the glowing embers of a campfire at twilight, or a contemplative gaze across unspoilt countryside while remembering the madness of the city. It’s both comforting and bittersweet.
‘Margaret Sands’ opens the album with a warm, bluegrass-style finger-picking; its lyrics that play on themes of womanhood and the rising and falling swell of the ocean in what seems to be an exploration of Veirs’ self-described transition into middle age. Lead single ‘Everybody Needs You’, meanwhile, is a gentle and haunting ode to parenthood that’s buoyed by Tucker Martine’s production; her husband and collaborator has produced her last nine albums and masterfully brings Veirs’ emotions to the fore with skilfully-applied reverb and an authentic, analogue sound that isn’t overloaded with effects.
Veirs was, as she sings on ‘Seven Falls’, “raised under rays and gold and under sapphire skies” in the Colorado mountains, and nature is a frequent backdrop for her musings on life in modern-day America. It’s as if including this obvious source of comfort helps her face her demons by wrapping them in something that gives her hope; “It’s time to matter / The earth will see you on through this time,” she sings on ‘Mountains Of The Moon’.
Blink and you’ll miss Sufjan Stevens’ appearance on ‘Watch Fire’, so hushed are his backing vocals, but like the other tracks on the record, it shows Veirs’ talent for crafting melodies that reassure and comfort using relatively sparse instrumentation and the gentle, warm sounds of country and folk: a finger-picked guitar here, a flute there. ‘The Lookout’ is Veirs’ tribute to her husband, and the security that can be gleaned by having someone to lean on in an uncertain world; ‘The Meadow’, by contrast, is a meandering look back over a fleeting love affair that was “beautiful” despite its transience.
The use of of opaque metaphors interspersed with fleeting personal recollections – “We were just passing through your town / Sleeping on the boards of your old house / Candlelit floor inside our dream,” she intones on ‘The Canyon’ – makes for an album that’s personal and secretive at the same time, and evokes a feeling of watching an indie romance set against the backdrop of the vast American wilderness. It’s here that Veirs’ charm really lies; similarly to her friend Sufjan Stevens, her ability to tell stories without being blasé or obvious is what’s given her a long career in a fluctuating music world.
Veirs also proves that providing inspiration or hope doesn’t always require a bombastic call to arms. “And the people’s hearts rose with fire,” she sings on closing track ‘Zozobra’. There are many ways to find solace in the unstable world we live in, and ‘The Lookout’ is Veirs’ quietly optimistic manifesto.