Conceived as a companion piece to 2017’s Twin Solitude, the Canadian songwriter’s fourth album is a dialogue with the person he’s been.
While putting the final touches on his third album, 2017’s Twin Solitude, Canadian songwriter Leif Vollebekk began to understand it better. Across 10 tracks, he’d mourned the dissolution of a relationship, grasping to resolve his past as newfound success created geographic and emotional distance. Only when he stopped searching did clarity find him. Rather than revise Twin Solitude, Vollebekk set about fashioning new songs to explore his growing perspective. “I started working on this new record [New Ways] while I was mixing that one,” he told Atwood Magazine. “I had this idea,” he said, “that it would be a companion piece.”
Vollebekk sensed chatter between the two projects—so much so that he considered titling the new album Phaedrus, after Plato’s dialogue by the same name. Among the discussion topics in Plato’s Phaedrus is the effect of writing on memory: how creating a record of an event discourages remembering it. Vollebekk doesn’t heed that warning. New Ways sidles up to the past, opening a dialogue with time, with place, and with the person he’s been.
One central figure lingers across the album—a present absence that sits easier than on Twin Solitude. “She’s my woman and she loved me so fine,” Vollebekk sings on the bruised “Never Be Back.” Love has come and gone, but on New Ways the lesson finally sticks. “She’ll never be back, never be back,” he adds, briskly repeating himself. The steady piano paces Vollebekk’s manic verses. His desire to understand hasn’t abated, but he no longer seeks to change the past—merely to invoke it. “Not making a case for you or for trying,” he sings.
Vollebekk laces his capacious, meandering music with a ’60s folk-jazz sensibility. As with Twin Solitude, he recorded New Ways directly to tape, allowing each song’s mood to dictate its direction. “When I hear music, I hear lots of space,” he’s explained, “and then I find that when I add instruments it’s almost like somebody saying too much […] or saying the wrong thing. It takes the air out of the room.” The sparse, tense “Hot Tears” doubles his voice while a piano and burnished hi-hat clear space to collate bygone days. When he fills out that baseline with a sumptuous Wurlitzer (as on “The Way That You Feel”) or a crestfallen sax (as on “Wait a While”), the songs remain understated and affecting.
His frenetic lyricism sits in clarifying contrast to the spare arrangements, the same qualities that helped Twin Solitude earn nominations for the Polaris Prize and Juno Award. “Hot Tears” and “Transatlantic Flight” stand out, but on the whole New Ways doesn’t live up to the emotional spark of its predecessor. There’s a point when mulling over the same memories shifts into melancholia; Vollebekk comes close to that cliff, but he keeps regret at bay by focusing on reality. The drums on “I’m Not Your Lover” tick like a clock as he traces how time has changed his circumstances: “Drifting in thrift stores I see something pretty/See a jacket I’d wear ’til I gave it to you,” he sings, before soberly reminding himself, “I’m not your lover.” On “Phaedrus”—what remains of the album’s original title—he repeats the first and last verses as if they were a mantra: “The way that it was/Is the way it should be.”
Buy: Rough Trade
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