British singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan has a beautiful voice. But so what? Lots of people do. So why does her beautiful voice seem more beautiful to us than others?
Perhaps it has to do with the long, tortuous tunnel it traveled to reach our ears. Bunyan says that her third record, Heartleap, will be her last. Of course, she thought the same thing about Just Another Diamond Day, her 1970 debut. Its crepuscular folk songs failed to catch on, perhaps because they didn’t fit expectations of female singer-songwriters in an era more attuned to Carole King, or because Bunyan was vagabonding around artist colonies instead of promoting it.
Diamond was rediscovered during the freak-folk movement of the 2000s, which brought ahead-of-their-time women such as Bunyan and Linda Perhacs an overdue reappraisal. Capitalizing on the new interest, Bunyan collaborated with Animal Collective on an EP and enlisted Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom for her second LP, Lookaftering.
But on Heartleap, nine years later, Bunyan goes solo again, and solitude suits her. Not for nothing was the B-side of her Jagger/Richards-penned single “Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind” called “I Want to Be Alone.” She always sounds a bit distracted, as if she was idly singing to herself and we were lucky enough to overhear. On “Blue Shed,” over small eddies of piano, she sings, “I wish I had a blue shed with nobody in it/ I wish I had a closed door with only me behind it.” This album is that cloistered space.
The wintry accompaniment, with baroque shadings in its plucked harpsichord-like tones, dovetails gorgeously with the offhand quality of her singing. From the wobbly interplay of guitar arpeggios on “Across the Water” to the violin sawing somewhere off to the side on “Mother,” the music revolves in faint fits and starts, like a run-down music box.
This lends Heartleap a spellbinding, trancelike air. Lyrics that look prosaic on the page become charged with oneiric significance: “Fall into sleep as the sun comes up/ And wake at the back of noon/ Drift through the hours as the sun gets lower/ Till the days are lit by the moon.” Simple declarations engender ghostly presences.
Bunyan’s followers fashioned themselves as forgotten folk outsiders, relics from a mythic past. But that’s what Bunyan really is, and she wears it with an authenticity, simplicity and weathered gravitas younger artists can’t match. With a heavy heart but a light, redeeming touch, she has compressed those lost years into a quietly remarkable conclusion — maybe — to her 40-odd-year trilogy.