Sunday, 3 April 2016

Laura Gibson - Empire Builder

The back story to Laura Gibson's Empire Builder, released on April 1st on City Slang, is quite astonishing. Back in 2012, she released La Grande, and in the summer of 2014 she decided to relocate from Portland to New York - taking a break from music to study creative writing instead.

Her journey began with a trip on the Empire Builder, a rail route between the Pacific North West and Chicago that has legendary status in the US. This part of her story - a journey in the literal as well as the figurative sense - might be enough in its own right to inspire a collection of new songs, but it was eclipsed by the events that followed.

At the end of March 2015, a gas explosion blew up Gibson's apartment building, destroying almost everything she owned, including most of her recent work and all of her musical instruments. Two people were killed in the blast.

Empire Builder becomes a metaphor for this entire chapter in her life, from the initial rail ride, to the time spent completing her studies while sleeping on friends' couches and spare beds, and all while literally rebuilding her own empire, replacing not only the instruments she had lost, but the lyrics and music too.

The result is a quite incredible album, ten tracks that almost alternate between punchy defiance and melancholy reflection, lyrics that speak of loss, and of recovery, and of simply refusing to quit. These are the big feelings of every human life, and I think most listeners will find at least one track that resonates almost uncannily with their own life and experiences.

Not Harmless

The first of our preview tracks is Not Harmless, one of the more defiant tracks on Empire Builder, with a similarly feisty video you can watch below.

From the first second, Not Harmless is punchy in an instrumental style reminiscent of some of the best Tom Waits songs - heavy on percussion, on rhythm rather than melody, a slap beat that sustains through the whole track, creating a sense of time passing, a second by second tick-tock effect.

Gibson's own description of the song is similarly no-nonsense:

"In very simple terms, Not Harmless is about standing up for myself: defining womanhood on my own terms. It may be a critique of social expectations, but more so it's a critique of my own behaviour and insecurities. I must add that I have always, always wanted to write a song in which I was the villain, to hold that sort of agency, to reimagine myself in my most self-serving no-fucks-given form. So lines like, 'I'll be the thief you forgot to chase, the bramble sprung back in the hero's face' gave me great pleasure to write."

As for the video, director Derrick Belcham puts some context on the physical assaults suffered by Gibson throughout, as a metaphor for the assaults that come from within:

"It's an attempt to capture a multi-angle viewpoint of the various aspects of the singer's insecurities in the music video environment. Each of the dancers embodies a specific discomfort or complex that raises its head during the process of being on camera, exposing oneself through songwriting and 'being' in the world in general. Their actions reflect the shifting battle that an ego faces when the spotlight is turned on it."

Not Harmless is not the most 'listenable' song on Empire Builder, by any means - other tracks are more melodic, less confrontational on the ear, but of course that's not what everybody will be looking for from this album anyway. What the song does offer is a kind of inclusive defiance, almost a justification of relying on the darker side of your character when you need to find your inner strength, and I think that's something a lot of people will relate to as well.

Empire Builder

The title track is one of the most astonishing songs I've heard in recent years, a fist of emotion to punch into the chest of anyone who's ever lost somebody, and hoped to someday reconnect. I'm delighted to be able to preview this one below.

I had goosebumps within seconds of the start of the song, before Gibson began singing. There were tears in my eyes after the first few lines. Maybe the lyrics just hit home with me on this particular day, and there are certainly personal reasons for that, but I think I would have loved this song just as much if I had heard it for the first time on any other day. It's elegant, gentle, with a more muted percussion track that still echoes that sense of passing time; the inevitability of change.

"Oh, forget I said love.
And also don't forget I said love.
We are not alone
and we are more alone than we've ever been.
So hurry up and lose me
hurry up and find me again."

There's no long, slow fade at the end of the track, as you might expect, but an equally elegant end to the beat and a soft cymbal crash. It's a small symbol of the authenticity of this album - songs where the acoustics are held almost in a kind of reverence, given their own voice, not simply faded to silence when they are no longer needed. There's love here, and hope.

I'm in love with Empire Builder - the song and the album. It tackles the biggest emotions in all our lives without becoming pretentious. Musically it's beautiful, the very best qualities of its own time, with hints of half a century before it, the occasional lingering note that wouldn't be out of place in Unchained Melody or something similar. This is timeless subject matter, with enduring acoustics, and I look forward to revisiting Empire Builder time and again in the years ahead.

Buy Empire Builder on audio CD or digital download from Amazon.