Kathleen Edwards always could write. The Canadian singer was spinning emotionally complex stories into compelling country-tinged rock songs while she was still in her teens, and for a while there, her vivid imagination and skill at evoking scenes and feelings outpaced her lived experience.
By the time she released Voyageur in 2012, life had caught up, as it tends to do, and her fourth album was an excellent collection of songs about second thoughts that she wrote while her marriage was falling apart. By 2014, as the stress of a mid-level life in music increasingly weighed her down, Edwards ducked out from under her career anxiety for a while to open a coffee shop in her hometown near Ottawa and refocus her mental, physical and emotional energy.
Total Freedom, her first new album in eight years, proves the break did her good. Edwards is sharp here as she runs through a wide range of emotions on songs with a strong, lived-in feel that wasn’t always there when she was younger. Her voice, too, has mellowed, or maybe she has changed her approach. Either way, the reedy quality that characterized her vocals on louder songs has evened out to sound smoother. The change adds nuance when she’s wryly recounting a romance that didn’t pan out on first single “Options Open,” a sweeping song with a steady, gently propulsive beat pushing layers of guitars and an indelible hook on the chorus that practically demands that you sing along.
Edwards is unstinting with melody on these 10 songs. If the one on “Options Open” is big and bold, she takes a low-key approach on “Birds on a Feeder,” where she contrasts the simple freedoms of the life she’s made with apprehension about whether she can make room for anything more complicated. Edwards sings softly over a mix of fingerpicked acoustic and slide guitars, and it’s intimate enough to want to hold your breath and scoot your chair in closer so as not to miss a word.
Along with the bountiful melodies, Edwards takes a candid, openhearted approach to her lyrics. She’s magnanimous and funny on opener “Glenfern,” where she reminisces fondly about the thrill of shared discovery she and her ex-husband (the guitarist Colin Cripps) experienced in the early days of their relationship as her career took flight. “Simple Math” has an air of nostalgia, too, but of a different sort. Inspired by reconnecting with her childhood best friend, Edwards peels off memories from their (mis)adventures, punctuating the lyrical montages with an affectionate, but unaffected, refrain that captures the joy and beauty of enduring friendship—an underrepresented topic in popular music. No matter: With “Simple Math,” Edwards has written perhaps the definitive song on the subject.
Not every song on Total Freedom treats the past with such indulgence. Though this album sounds like the work of a musician who has figured out a lot of things about herself, some of the songs suggest it was sometimes a bumpy journey. The taut, twangy guitar licks and metronomic beat on “Hard on Everyone” have an unsettled air as Edwards addresses someone who comes off as emotionally abusive, at best, while “Fool’s Ride” peels back the layers of a con man’s lies. “You know how to spend my money / You know how to spin a story,” she sings as keyboards swirl around her voice, which is by turns flinty over his deception and regretful at having fallen for it.
Edwards, too, knows how to spin a story, but there’s no con on Total Freedom—just a welcome progress report from a musician who took the time she needed, and returns stronger and wiser than she was before, with a first-class collection of songs to prove it.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.