Album Review: Laura Veirs – My Echo

[Bella Union/Raven Marching Band; 2020]

On Valentine’s Day 2020, singer-songwriter Laura Veirs put out what felt like a raw demo, recorded at home. It was a stark song, consisting of just her voice and guitar, called “I Was a Fool”. It was, in essence, a deeply personal, detailed account of her recent struggles with her divorce from longtime partner and collaborator, Tucker Martine. It was a heartbreaking scene unadorned, rendered from the stuff of real life. It’s one of the most strikingly and simply candid songs from a songwriter who has never shied away from including details of her own life in her songs. But, as Veirs sang lyrics like, “Never again / I was a fool / And I’ll try to live my life free,” the heartache was palpable.

And though this song does not show up on Veirs’s 11th album, My Echo, the divorce it focused on continues to fuel much of the material here. Their divorce came as a bit of a shock to the music community, as Veirs and Martine have been working together for years; he has produced every album of hers since her 2003 sophomore LP Troubled By the Fire, lending a warm ember’s glow to Veirs specific brand of emotive folk songs. (Martine also produced My Echo, which the listener is left to absorb in whichever way they choose to.)

What we’re given is 10 songs in just under 34 minutes, one of Veirs’ most efficient and direct albums. Veirs, here, is stripping her songs of most excess, providing only what they most require. Where she used to sing about “nicer” things like mermaids and pirates and the wonders of nature, she now gives us glimpses of jealousy, doubt, shame, and the hard truths of life. 

Now, it should be noted that this album was written before and during the couple’s demise, not after. This is not an album with the hyper-specificity of a break up, such as recent eavesdropping-adjacent gems like Björk’s Vulnicura, or even Beyonce’s Lemonade. Veirs has described the songs on this album as knowing she was getting divorced before she did, and so they are less about the brutal aftermath than they are about the liminal space between thinking and knowing that it’s over.

The record starts with perhaps its dreariest number, “Freedom Feeling”, which finds Veirs looking for a rush of good vibes that she perhaps used to have, but is lost now to a muck of confusion. The song is supported by some profoundly emotive and lovely strings, as the intensity grows slowly. There’s a certain understated drama here that’s not easy to find elsewhere in her catalog. First single “Burn Too Bright” ruminates on what happens in the wake of such a passionate bond, Veirs giving a deeply downcast melody that still manages to become an earworm as she sings things like “I wonder if your soul is still dispossessed.”

The most striking moments tend to be the most blunt, the most honest. On early teaser “Turquoise Walls”, we get a scene of Veirs lying in her bed, her “worst version” of herself, while she makes herself sick over thoughts that her partner is “keeping someone else’s pillow warm.” It’s the snappiest song here, with some perky strings and synths and a ticking electronic beat, but it’s also one of the most devastating. Later, on the piano-led centerpiece “End Times”, she sings the refrain, “When I think of the end times / You come to mind,” with the peaceful exhaustion of someone who’s been trying very hard for very long. 

Some of the moments here don’t quite land or gel as well as others. “Another Space and Time” has a sort of bossa nova-lite melody that makes the song stick out a bit too harshly. And “I Sing to the Tall Man” is the strangest tune here, with an effect on Veirs’ vocals that’s reminiscent of the pushed-against-the-glass quality of Angel Olsen’s “Pops”, and lyrics that feel more abstract than the rest of the album. Luckily, My Echo ends with the gentle and lovely “Vapor Trails”, which has a particularly idyllic sound palette, lending a summery twinge of levity despite the transience noted in the lyric. 

Partyway through “Vapor Trails”, Veirs sings, “Going through our ephemera / Backstage passes to MMJ,” and then, a moment later, as if summoned by sheer force of will, Jim James joins Veirs in a creaky, warmhearted duet. It’s a fitting detail to end the album on — a reminder that even in our darkest moments, there can be peace found and friends to hold you. As the album ends softly and slowly, like the tail of a cloud, My Echo ends up feeling both deeply sad but also oddly hopeful: arguing that, despite the pain of life, there is also joy, beauty, and freedom, if you want to find it.