It’s quite interesting what the album cover of Laura Stevenson‘s new record Wheel can unveil if you look close enough, even without the music as conceptual context. Being stylistically somewhat similar to the artwork of its predecessor Sit Resist (drawn object in the center, plain background), the higher level of detail offers much more insight to the actual content of the record and complements the music found on the band’s third full length quite perfectly. The rather obvious reference to the cyclical aspect of life, revealed by the four different stages of the moon and the different appearances of several plants and trees arranged around an axis, can be supplemented with the progressive and forward nature of the wheel itself, resulting in the cognition of life as something ever-repeating and self-sustaining.
The lyrical content, however, is not as concept-driven as the album cover may suggest. The periodic theme is definitely a cornerstone of the record’s dealing with heartbreak, death and tragedies, but Laura’s words are often too sensitive and bleak to convey the sanguine mentality that even in the face of despair and harm, one day there will be hope and fortune. While her emotional struggle at some points feels like a dead-end, the music behind her adds the desperately needed counterside, counterbalancing Laura’s snowy gloom with shafts of light and blossoming sunshine and keeping the wheel of life turning, or at least in motion. The musicians formerly known as The Cans create an elaborate and dense musical background that allows their lead singer to display her exceptional knack for melody and emotional temper that gives their words this ponderous but relatable feel, a voice that spills emotional whirling with homogeneous grace and appealing diction.
Despite the obvious supremacy of Laura’s vocals, the juxtaposition with the incredibly varied and resourceful instrumental background is what truly elevates most of the songs, and thus the album as a whole. The poppy “Sink, Swim” is maybe the most unique example of this dualism, as the bouncy guitar and upbeat melodic curve goes hand in hand with Laura’s apocalyptic vocals: “Oh California, I tried to warn ya, the earth is gonna quake before ya. You’ll be real sorry but it won’t be sorry, the dirt is gonna crack and split you in two.” Though this discrepancy may be on the edge of coming across as satirical, the perfect harmony of all the musicians and the friction-less interplay between both sides of good and evil give this song its special edge, and solidify Wheel‘s template of sad songs that aren’t actually that sad, even though it’s kind of irritating in the first few runs.
Whereas songs like “Triangle” or “Sink, Swim” are in a unified balance between the sunny pop-folk-swing of The Cans and the icy pain from Laura, “Every Tense” and “L-DOPA” display the staggering results if both instances pull in the same direction, creating full-blown ballad-type songs with a heart-wrenching use of strings and climatic songwriting. In a similar vein, the closing title track is a considerate, minimal slow burner that hits its stride with a gorgeous horn section in the grand finale, ending the record with the quintessential one-liner “I’ll turn over like a wheel.”
It’s hard to find a flaw in any of the 13 tracks, as every minute is devoted to this perfect harmony the band emits. The congeniality of the wonderfully executed instrumentation is only exceeded by the goosebumps-inducing voice of Laura, improving over her already stunning delivery on Sit Resist while showing a great amount of maturity and eloquence during the process. For all the variety in instrumentation, songwriting, moods and tempi as well as lyrical ambitions, Wheel is never overblown or directionless, keeping a good sense of precision and consideration instead of fully devoting itself to its emotional depths and thereby getting lost in the dreaded world of pain and hopelessness. This album is as beautiful as folk-pop can get, a record that infinitely grows with its own aspirations, and a strong contender for album of the year. Let the wheel keep turning, Laura.