Vashti Bunyan – Heartleap

by Peter Giunta, published November 14th 2014

Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!

Vashti-Bunyan-HeartleapAs any classic Richard Linklater trilogy will show you, the best way to an audience’s heart is through glimpses of romance spaced out over multiple decades.  Such is the framework that British folk singer Vashti Bunyan has stumbled onto with Heartleap, her third release in over four decades.

The narrative starts with her release of Just Another Diamond Day in 1970.  Pastoral to a fault, the album deftly scored our wildest dreams of rolling landscapes and eternal summers.  However, its limited commercial success (combined with feelings of inadequacy after listening to Joni Mitchell), led Bunyan to steal away to the English countryside to raise children and forget about her music career.

We montage over the next 20 years, and the camera pans to freak-folk revivalists scrounging up Bunyan’s cobwebbed LPs.  Cue fainting.  The following that emerged from this rediscovery dubbed Bunyan the “godmother of freak-folk,” presumably because Diamond Day was like candy for her nieces and nephews that will do just about anything (i.e. pay thousands of dollars on eBay) to get some.   The album was re-released in 2001, and devotees such as Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective coaxed Bunyan back out of hibernation.  She collaborated on Animal Collective’s Prospect Hummer EP in 2005, and finally released her second full-length LP Lookaftering a few months later.  The album demonstrated that Bunyan hadn’t lost a step, with her impressively delicate vocals and equally strong production collaboration with Max Richter.

Now 67, Bunyan has stated that Heartleap will be her final release.  The similarities between this release and Lookaftering are apparent in the cover art, as both feature paintings by Bunyan’s daughter Whyn Lewis.  They also provide considerable depth into her personal life, especially when compared to the seemingly universal portrait of farm life in Diamond Day.  On Lookaftering, that meant musing over the wonder of her children and reconciling her move away from the farm that she idealized in her debut.

Heartleap provides considerably more nuance to her character.  “Mother” paints a scene in which Bunyan is secretly watching her mother dance and sing.  She yearns to give her mother “rapturous” applause, which demonstrates a deeply complex reflection on the debt she feels to her parents.  On “Across the Water” she realizes that “every day is every day,” and questions her own complacency.  This is a theme that is further explored on “Holy Smoke,” in which she feels as though she’s “slowly growing roots.” The mood of transience is reflected perfectly in Bunyan’s airy voice fading at the end of each line, as well as the staggered backing vocals from Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic.

“Mother” also represents the triumphs of Bunyan’s creative control on this record.  The soft piano instantly transports you to her creaky living room threshold, and makes you want to applaud when it ends.  The kalimba employed on “Across the Water,” as well as the dulcitone in  “Here,” underscore her intimate understanding of the balance between her vocal melodies and the instrumentals.  However, Bunyan doesn’t quite match the production chops of her previous collaborators.  The string arrangements on songs like “Feet of Clay” from Lookaftering were texturally richer than those on “Across the Water” and “Gunpowder,” which added a sense of dynamic range not quite fleshed out on Heartleap.

Fans of Diamond Day who were looking for another bucolic masterpiece were likely disappointed with this release, but the truth is that Bunyan is long past the years of following glowworms into the forest.  She connects with listeners on a much more personal level, delivering an album that is reflective and deeply honest. As an artist who has sparred with self-doubt, her message here seems resolute:  She has finally learned to “fall with the grace of it all,” a flawed but hopeful character who has truly given herself to her music.

Recommended Tracks: Across the Water, Mother, Holy Smoke

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