“When I think of the end times you come to mind,” sings Laura Veirs on My Echo, her eleventh solo album, released on Bella Union on 23 October. On its own, it’s a statement that could be read either as damning or unbearably romantic. In the context of the song, “End Times”, an ethereal piano ballad, it’s more the latter: our love has ended, Veirs implies, but that doesn’t mean I won’t always hold it with me, won’t be thinking about you when the apocalypse hits. The song sways with the gentle melancholy of Veirs’ present but doesn’t forget the beauty of the past: “As the Earth cracks in two/And we fall out into space/I’ll be thinking of your hands/And all the times they held my face.”
Veirs has said that it wasn’t until she was writing My Echo that she realised her 19-year marriage was crumbling; the news came out in her songwriting before it had fully cemented in herself. This could have resulted in a miserable record, but in the hands of Veirs it is an album that explores, yes, dissolution, endings and mourning, but also places those feelings in the context of the natural world, and asks: what are we, to the rest of it?
Veirs is, quietly, one of the greatest living American songwriters. Born in Colorado in 1973 and now based in Portland, Oregon, she has released eleven solo studio albums, including a record of folk songs for children. In 2016 she collaborated with KD Lang and Neko Case to release the much-praised record case/lang/veirs. Veirs works in a realm that allows her to borrow just as much from jazz and blues as from folk and country, and the bright originality of her songs, though defined by her warm vocal talent, is secured by her consistently brilliant songwriting and thoughtful instrumentation. On the typically luminous My Echo, her band of players includes My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, the guitarist Bill Frisell, the singer-songwriter M Ward, and Tucker Martine, Veirs’ former husband, who also produced the record, as he has much of her previous work. For another, less capable musician, this set-up might have been uncomfortable; for Veirs and Martine, this working partnership is instinctive.
A former geology student, Veirs has always written with a perceptive awareness of the natural environment, using the burning sun, melting glaciers and solar flares as backdrops for her own personal disasters. On My Echo, released at a time when the apocalypse has never felt so near, such references feel even more poignant. “In another space and time/When California’s not burning/And the seas don’t rise,” she sings on “Another Space and Time”, which moves with a soft groove thanks to a castanet-fuelled beat. Though seemingly opposed, the song’s dark thematic content and its bright, danceable rhythm are not in competition. Veirs understands her own problems as existing in the greater scheme of the natural world, two constants always in motion. There is hope to be found in her willingness to submit to this symbiosis.
On 2007’s slacker-rock track “Saltbreakers”, from the album of the same name, Veirs sang, “You cannot burn me up/I’m a fallen leaf who keeps her green.” Now she returns to a similar metaphor on “Turquoise Walls”: “When I thought that I might lose you/Oh, I trembled like a leaf,” she sings, facing up to this terror with a quiet determination in her voice, though, accompanied only by acoustic guitar, she sounds vulnerable too. Soon the track is layered with further guitars and a banjo, and a haunting synth line shimmers underneath.
Veirs’ lyrics are straightforward, and she has a knack for threading in her bright humour even when she is writing about dark themes: “I texted you some cryptic shit/And was soon consumed with regret,” she sings, before a figure in a painting comes alive and tells her: “Have you considered that/Maybe his phone just died?” Even when she sings in metaphor, her intent remains clear. “I am a very good brick layer/I am very skilled,” she sings on “Brick Layer”, an elegant song on which, over soft piano and the gentle strumming of a nylon-stringed guitar, she uses the guise of a new character to practise her own introspection. “How can a sweet afternoon/Become a brick-hard night?/I’m still learning the rules/Of how to treat somebody right,” she admits.
It is clear that Veirs finds catharsis in her music. Nowhere is this more evident on My Echo than on “I Sing to the Tall Man”, a soft, trombone- and keyboard-led track, on which she sings a lullaby “to the tall man/who moves the faders”. “Come along and rest in my song,” she sings, to him, to herself, to anyone who is listening. Her marriage is over and the world is collapsing, but, Veirs knows, we will always have music.