Total Freedom (Dualtone)
There is a lot to be said for distance and thought: stepping away and figuring out if this really is what you want to be doing; working out what it is you do well and why; knowing the world and people just that little bit better.
You make better art. You make a better person.
Kathleen Edwards didn’t just take a break and a breath from her job as a musician with four albums and a ton of respect behind her. In 2014, she walked away and opened a coffee shop in her hometown of Stittsville, fashioning a life on the suburban fringes of Ottawa that had at best tangential connections to what had consumed her for more than a decade.
Who knows if she contemplated making the break permanent, or what pulled her back? But what is known is she has returned with an album – her first in eight years - that feels like the product of a settled mind and a renewed intent.
One of the first signs of that is there’s a consistency of mood – an even temper and an even tempo - throughout. Which isn’t to say repetitious, but more that whether remembering a childhood friendship, a misfiring relationship, a death where mourning doesn’t quite work, or a louse who “tried to take me for a fool” and take her for her money, the songs are laced with more earned understanding than bite.
You believe there’s more behind a line like “I’m okay being friends forever” (Simple Math) than wistful reminiscence, and more underneath a couplet such as “The world isn’t flat, God is not in the clouds/Everything in this world comes ‘round” (Ashes To Ashes) than bitterness.
In Fools Ride, the traces of anger are clear but still stay in check in a slowly turning, slowly burning description; in Ashes To Ashes there’s a low, low sky and blunted prospects, but she never feels abandoned; then in the harsh truths of Hard On Everyone, the prick of the lyrics (“You can’t wrap it up in a pretty bow/Then take your gifts back when the cracks start to show”) is carried on a War On Drugs-like space groove which muddies the waters for any simple judgment.
At times, such as Birds On A Feeder and to a certain extent Options Open, this equanimity can feel slight, leaving you not quite sure how to react. Their relative failures to connect are made more obvious when songs of similar shape, such as the closing pair of Who Rescued Who (a gliding in dappled light track) and Take It With You When You Go (decidedly later in the evening and later in life) shift you without any more obvious effort.
As with this year’s albums from Ron Sexsmith and Kim Richey, with whom Edwards shares not just a heart for melody and an emotional maturity, but crucially, a grasp of what she is here for, Total Freedom manages to sit across genres in a style that’s just best understood as adult pop music. Clear-minded, purposeful adult pop music at that.