A question lurks in the background of Laura Stevenson’s Wheel like a party guest invited out of obscure but unbreakable obligation: Once you realize you are going to die, what are you supposed to do about the rest of your life?
From a distance, Stevenson’s songs seem to tally up the standard frayed relationships and rocky familyscapes; up close, in flashes of quiet brutality, she makes the stakes clear. “There was a time when we believed that we could measure out a line just how we wanted it, so we could live just as long as anybody ever did/ but I was wrong,” she concedes over the clamorous ballroom swing of “Bells and Whistles.” On “The Hole,” a nuzzling, solo acoustic thing run aground of a campfire hootenanny, “you are the constant in my constant, you are the salty wind in my sail” could be directed at a reliable lover, or at the specter of death itself.
Stevenson, 28, has made two records already — both as Laura Stevenson and The Cans, both lovely but not quite as focused or self-assured as Wheel. Before, her reference points were so obvious as to be nearly suffocating, her raw-throated bellows and ramshackle accompaniment at times sounding like an audition tape for America’s Next Top Mangum. Here, her influences (among them: Crazy Horse, Nirvana, Dolly Parton) seem more fully absorbed and processed, like she’s finally hearing just her own voice in her head.
Rather than make the choice between draping the record in heartstring-plucking orchestral folk or loading it with unstoppered rock ‘n’ roll sass, Stevenson and producer Kevin McMahon (Titus Andronicus, Swans) went with all of the above, and it’s for the best; the songs plot themselves out one by one, each as connected and disconnected from what comes before and what comes next as the endless numbered days they taunt and lament. They bloom unexpectedly, then wither away; they blindside, linger and end before you’re ready.
Wheel is all questions, asked and unasked; there’s no answers, no easy solace, just a lot of ground teeth and gawking voids. Unseen clocks tick, sidewalks swallow pedestrians whole, coastlines crumble into the sea; all the while, love is nurtured, neglected, mourned, and life moves at its own awful, beautiful pace. “The hardest part is getting older,” Stevenson laments, and it’s true, but what choice do we have?