Vashti Bunyan - Lookaftering

But fundamentally it is just a beautiful collection of songs.

 

Vashti Bunyan – Lookaftering

 

Many years ago I read something by one of the blokes out of St. Etienne saying how great Vashti Bunyan's album Just Another Diamond Day was. I duly purchased it as it had just been re-issued on vinyl and I found, happily, that Mr. Stanley was right. Originally released to no great fanfare in 1969, and produced by the great Joe Boyd, it told the story of Vashti's life in her caravan as she travelled up to Scotland. A brief stab at pop fame behind her, Vashti decided to head up to Skye to join the commune that Donovan was setting up on the island. But it took her two years to get there and by the time she'd arrived the commune had gone. After a brief trip back to London to record her album she disappeared off the radar completely. Until a couple of years ago, that is. Now her first album has been described as a classic and she's gone on to work with people like Four Tet and the Animal Collective.

 

I suppose one could say, if one were cruel, that her new album ought to be bloody good – after all, she's had thirty odd years to write it. Fortunately I'm not that mean and happily the album is filled with some great songs so it's not an issue. At first I confess I was a little worried. Before I listened to it I saw that the contributors to the album included a veritable who's who of the new folk world – Joanna Newsome and Devandra Banhart are on it, for instance. As are Adam Pierce (Mice Parade) and the wonderful Adem. Would the producer Max Richter (whose solo albums are dense orchestral works dealing with weighty and emotional subjects) give Vashti space to breathe?

 

I needn't have worried – he and Vashti have done an excellent job and, with one exception, have allowed the contributor's work to remain mere flourishes at the periphery of Vashti's songs. The first thing that strikes you on Lately, the opening track, is Vashti's voice. It seems largely unchanged from all those years ago. It's still fragile and affecting, but on further listening there does seem to be a subtle difference. I might be imagining this, but there seems to be a quiet strength in her singing. It has come not so much from a greater knowledge of the world, but a greater understanding. Anyway, Lately is a stately and simple song, with a pastoral feel to it. Here Before, the second track, contains the kind of lyrics that set some people's teeth on edge. It opens with 'Once I had a child / he was wilder than moonlight.' The natural world is central to the album – the sea, the sun and the stars all feature. The other two central themes are travel and relationships (and specifically the difficulty in finding someone that truly understands you). All three themes are treated fairly equally on the album and all intertwine. If you can't get past lyrics like those above then more fool you, because Lookaftering presents a worldview that is both beautiful and sad.

 

We expect artifice and irony in our lyrics nowadays and are apt to equate simplicity with vulgarity. And when I say simplicity I don't mean that Vashti's lyrics are naive in construction, merely that they don't try to impress or baffle. Anyway, these are songs that yearn to be felt, not dissected. Here Before also shows off the subtleties of the production. The xylophone that chimes away in the background has been treated and manipulated but it is only apparent on careful listening. Vashti's voice is always at the foreground of the songs and the instrumentation is usually simple and sparse, allowing the songs the room they need. The only slightly clunking note comes with the outro to Wayward, a heavy-handed country-ish twang-fest that swamps the rest of the song.

 

Turning Backs is one of the highlights of the album. It is a little out of keeping with the rest of it, and it should certainly appeal most to those that have difficulties with the idea of folk music. It opens with a stuttering piano; the piano is soon joined by guitar and flute and then a harpsichord takes over. All fade away, except the piano, when Vashti begins to sing. The song itself is beautiful, managing to convey the apparently paradoxical feeling of ecstatic melancholy. Imagine walking along a wintry country lane at dusk – that might give you an idea of what I mean. The rest of the instruments return for the chorus and for a second it is as if John Barry had made folk music. Other tracks such as Same But Different plough a similar furrow – a mournful violin and quietly devastating lyrics elevate the song beyond any notion of genre.

 

And this idea of genre makes one wonder if Lookaftering is really a folk album at all. It is wistful and acoustic, it embraces nature – in short it ticks a lot of the necessary boxes. But fundamentally it is just a beautiful collection of songs. And if that isn't enough, neither Joanna nor Devandra actually sing on it.

 

Words: Chris Dawson.