Laura Stevenson’s self-titled sixth album begins with one of the boldest moments in the songwriter’s decade-long discography. “State” is a seething glower: Muddy strums and Stevenson’s apocalyptic intonations give way to furious drumming and a blood-boiling scream. She only lets herself loose for a few seconds before settling back down into a simmer, but it’s more than enough to feel the hurricane-force wind of her pain and how difficult it is to keep it at bay. The song has a crackling, perfectly executed quiet-loud dynamic, and Stevenson finishes on a poetic loose nerve: “What a sterling way to come/ I become rage, a shining example of pure anger/ Pure and real and sticky and moving and sweet.”
“State” is something of a feint, sonically, from the rest of Laura Stevenson, which is gliding and quieter, an extension of the warbled ballads on 2019’s The Big Freeze. Stevenson has been at this for a while, and her music is confident and unshowy. She recorded Laura Stevenson with John Agnello, the veteran producer who has worked with Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. and, more recently, Kurt Vile and Waxahatchee. Together, they’ve made an album that feels elegant and comforting and unadorned. In contrast to the spilling-over rage of its opening track, Laura Stevenson aims to capture some form of placid peace, as Stevenson attempts to keep her negative emotions in check and not let them fully consume her.
But the album has revenge at its core. Though Stevenson is reticent to talk about the exact details, the album was spurred on by an event that caused Stevenson to drop everything and, in her words, “help someone that I love very much who was going through something absolutely unthinkable.” As she was taking care of her friend, her mind started to contemplate what it means to care for others and ourselves. Add in the fact that Stevenson ended up being five months pregnant while recording the album, and mothering becomes one of Laura Stevenson‘s central tenets. “What could I do to keep you safe all of your life?” she asks on the warm and rambling “Continental Divide.” “What could I do right to keep you weightless for a while?/ You know I’d take this all away from you, I’m trying to.”
Stevenson places a lot of pressure on herself throughout, weighing whether she’s worthy of the job of being a caretaker. On “Moving Cars,” she wonders if she’s cut from the right cloth to be a good enough friend, a good enough parent: “In the face of those I love, am I the sort who’s jumping out of sort of moving cars?” She goes on to sing about the futility of keeping up a routine when it all feels pointless: “I held your tongue between my teeth/ Still, why do we face each other while we sleep/ Keep appointments faithfully/ When we know that everything is faulty like a stone?” “Sky Blue, Bad News,” the album’s moving centerpiece, ends on questions that reverberate through all of Laura Stevenson: “Did I shirk something? Did I hurt someone? Was I ever any good? Was I ungrateful?”
Laura Stevenson is a collection of tender, constantly searching songs. The focus is, more often than not, on Stevenson’s words and how they manage to collide so beautifully with the simple arrangements she prefers. On the album’s penultimate track “After Those Who Mean It,” Stevenson’s voice rises to chilling heights as she sings obliquely about trying to remain steadfast: “Edge away, my sweet machine/ Churn over and repeat to keep you here with me.” It’s a soft, stunning highlight on an album full of those kinds of moments, where everything drops away and you’re left with an uneasy hush.
Way back in 2011, right around the release of her sophomore album Sit Resist, Stevenson tried to explain the difference between her part in fiery groups like Bomb The Music Industry! and what she wanted to accomplish with her own music: “Punk bands can feed off a lot of energy… But when I’m feeling a lot of feelings, I don’t feel a lot of energy.” Over the course of six albums now, Stevenson has created world for herself that is uncompromisingly still. The fireworks of Laura Stevenson‘s opener “State” are satisfying in the moment, but constantly feeling the full brunt of anger is rarely healthy. Instead, Stevenson has opted to try to come to terms with her anger, not through confronting it head-on but by trying to absorb it and transform it into something pure and real and sticky and moving and sweet.
Laura Stevenson is out 8/6 via Don Giovanni Records. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Kanye West’s Donda, maybe
• Nas’ KIng’s Disease II
• Ty Segall’s Harmonizer.
• Liars’ The Apple Drop
• Lingua Ignota’s SINNER GET READY
• RZA’s RZA vs Bobby Digital
• Tinashe’s 333
• Pink Siifu’s GUMBO!
• Foxing’s Draw Down The Moon
• Damon & Naomi With Kurihara’s A Sky Record
• Kississippi’s Mood Ring
• Colin Hay’s I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself
• Vacation’s Existential Risks And Returns
• Abstract Mindstate’s Dreams Still Inspire
• Moritz von Oswald Trio’s Dissent
• Unreqvited’s Beautiful Ghosts
• Information Society’s ODDfellows
• Naked Raygun’s Over The Overlords
• Barbra Streisand’s Release Me 2
• Khruangbin’s Mordechai Remixed
• Homeboy Sandman’s Anjelitu EP
• DMA’s’ I Love You Unconditionally Sure Am Going To Miss You EP
• Little Dragon’s New Me, Same Us remix EP