Tamara Lindeman is no longer singing about white lilacs, wild columbine, rhubarb pie and big jars of honey. On two previous albums as the Weather Station, Lindeman used acoustic guitars, banjos and a lexicon of bucolic imagery to write graceful, generous folk songs. The material wasn’t simple so much as vernacular, so that even the Toronto songwriter’s most intense reflections on love and lust espoused a downhome familiarity.
To make Loyalty, Lindeman and a minimal crew decamped to a deteriorating French mansion for a long wintertime recording session. Collaboration has long been integral to the Weather Station’s records, from a set of duets released in 2013 to the way in whichEverything was recorded by two different bands in two different countries. But only Bahamas leader and multi-instrumentalist Afie Jurvanen and accomplished engineer Robbie Lackritz joined Lindeman along the Seine. They shared production duties, while Lindeman and Jurvanen split a dozen instruments evenly. These 11 songs often suggest you’re sitting with the trio in some small parlor as they play. The drums shuffle or canter quietly. The guitars stay hushed. The only real instrumental break, the smoldering electric coda at the end of “Tapes”, remains gentle, hinting at an outburst but never delivering it. And whether hitting the brassy highs of “I Could Only Stand By” or the diffident lows of “Personal Eclipse”, Lindeman’s voice rarely rises above an elegant whisper. It’s as if she’s trusting these revelations only to the people in the room.
All of this material indeed seems confidential, like a list of life problems that Lindeman is still trying to sort out for herself. Opener “Way It Is, Way It Could Be” sets the stage for this exacting ambiguity, where the uncertainty of the future unspools from a discrete, difficult present. Here, a relationship is good but neither as honest nor forgiving as she hopes. The partnership’s survival suggests a Schrödinger’s cat scenario, where Lindeman can simultaneously envision success and failure. During “Personal Eclipse”, she takes stock of her general discomfort with society—its catcalling men, her introversion amid others’ extroversion, the loneliness such tension can induce—and tries to tease out its source. It’s an open-ended self-evaluation, with more lingering questions than actual answers. And “Like Sisters” questions the limits of friendship and choosing sides, even when it imperils your own happiness. “Sometimes you give, you’re giving all you have,” she offers, stretching those last words with what sounds like regret. “And sometimes you’re the taker.”
The detail-oriented approach that delighted on the Weather Station’s early records reappears on Loyalty. Mesas are “strange and red and snowy.” Rivers are “serpentine, glinting.” The low sunlight of November is “impossibly bright.” Paired with the external turmoil and internal debate of these lyrics and the private way Lindeman and Jurvanen deliver them, such observations give Loyalty the feeling of fastidiously edited old journal entries—too lean and evocative to be a first draft, but still true to experience. It’s an approach that puts Lindeman in the company of Bill Callahan and Joni Mitchell, songwriters whose careful combinations of pedestrian details and profound insights also created secret, self-sovereign worlds. And like both of those songwriters, she’s a singer with an unmistakable and communicative voice, able to convey hope and hurt with equal clarity.
During standout “I Mined”, Lindeman admits she is stuck: There’s a fundamental but indiscernible flaw in her current relationship. It’s the pea beneath the mattress that keeps her up at night, even as the seasons come and go. She alternately wants to find and fix it or just forget it and carry on. But she knows that’s impossible. “Your trouble is like a lens through which the whole world bends,” she confides over prismatic piano, her voice suddenly harmonizing with itself as if to emphasize that this is the record’s thesis. “And you can’t set it straight again.” These 11 tunes are expressions of woes that you can’t quite correct but can’t let go, either, worries that plague you but push you onward, too. These are public folk songs about the private problems—breakups and makeups, depressions and deaths—we’ve all suffered.