Music review: Vashti Bunyan's third album in 44 years exists on its own rarefied planet

English folk musician Vashti Bunyan. -- PHOTO: FAT CAT
English folk musician Vashti Bunyan. -- PHOTO: FAT CAT

HEARTLEAP/Vashti Bunyan


4 stars

What would Marshall McLuhan think of Vashti Bunyan?

When the Canadian philosopher coined the term "global village" in the 1960s, he probably did not expect a recluse like her to be in it.

The English folk musician made her debut with her first album, Just Another Diamond Day, in 1970 and promptly vanished.

Fast forward three decades and she was sought out by Devendra Banhart and his freak-folk cohort. In 2005, she released Lookaftering, an album full of autumnal airiness.

Her latest, Heartleap, only her third album in 44 years and purported to be her last one, exists on its own rarefied planet. It doesn't make any claim to reflect current musical whims or the socio-political events of the day. Its only demand is for you to leave your digital devices at the door and then lock the door behind you.

One remembers her late-night gig at the Esplanade in 2010 - her voice floated in the cavernous Concert Hall as guitar strummed and strings swirled.

What was it searching for? What did you hope to get from her music?

These questions resurface as you take in her latest songs, written and recorded mostly by herself over a seven-year period.

These recordings are augmented by strings, woodwind and assorted instruments, but they are so decorous, the effect is to clarify rather than embellish. You barely hear the synths.

Across The Water is the perfect anti-careerist antidote. "Every day is every day/One foot in front of the other," she sings over burnished strings and the gentle plinks of a kalimba.

"Learn to fall with the grace of it all/As stones skip across the water," comes her realisation, gleaned from a life far away from the hamster's wheel.

She isn't seeking the quick fix to life's pesky troubles, but rather asking, in her own understated way, what makes the world spin.

She genuflects in front of the power (and powerlessness) of language, confessing that "the words that I let fly out of my mouth/Don't ever say what I want them to say" in Gunpowder.

In Shell, she rues life's limitations, that "in the telling of your story/There is so much that's lost".

Sonically, too, she paints a scenario with a few choice strokes - remarkably unobtrusive is the saxophone used here.

It would be inaccurate to label her a Luddite, a hipper mama with flowers in her hair.

Her latter-day association with the mid-noughties alternative-folk movement is merely an aspect of her appeal - granted Banhart and Andy Cabic of folk band Vetiver do appear on this album.

Still, one senses she doesn't belabour the connection or even her lasting influence on the younger generation.

Far too grounded to get caught up in the romantic headiness of it all, she'll smile, disappear from the scene and then get on with life.

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