Canadian country singer Kathleen Edwards' sophomore album, Back to Me, begins almost exactly like her 2003 debut, Failer. The lead-off "In State" could be "Six O'Clock News" redux, since both describe the same romantic quandary: What do you do with a lover who's a recalcitrant criminal and whose lawlessness interferes with your relationship? On "Six O'Clock News", the narrator sits by as her lover is gunned down on television, her unborn child left fatherless. But on "In State", the narrator is an active agent in her fate: She turns him in with no illusions and very little compunction, singing, "Maybe 20 years in state will change your mind."
The differences between these two lead-off tracks and their narrators reveal Edwards' growth as a songwriter since recording Failer. Back to Me is a bolder album, with Edwards figuring more prominently and actively in the more personal songs. Nowhere does she sound more brazen than on the title track, in which she promises no escape for an errant lover: "I've got ways to make you come," she sings, drawing out the last word in a sly innuendo before finally clarifying, "back to me."
Fittingly, her band on Back to Me sounds tighter and more dynamic than the one on Failer. This type of country music is not especially notable for its innovation, but there are flourishes of sound that elevate Back to Me above similar efforts by Tift Merritt and Kasey Chambers. In addition to Benmont Tench's churning organ and Eric Heywood's stately pedal steel, Colin Cripps' crisp production and feedback-heavy guitar work give songs like the title track and "What Are You Waiting For?" an edgy urgency that that matches the rough vulnerability of Edwards' voice.
Cripps, like Dave Draves on Failer, understands that the album's distinctiveness lies entirely with Edwards, the daring of her songwriting and the rawness of her vocals. She sounds tough-minded but world-weary as she sings of small-town inertia, big-city intimidation, and the thousandth romantic crime she's perpetrated. These characters aren't necessarily Edwards herself, but she inhabits them so unreservedly that she sounds believably vulnerable and alternately confused and confident.
Edwards recently moved from rural Canada to the big city of Toronto, which ostensibly inspired the sense of dislocation that informs much of Back to Me, especially the final three songs. On "Somewhere Else", she longs to be anywhere but her new hometown, and "Copied Keys" evokes the sense of never belonging in a new lover's life: "This is our apartment filled with your things/ This is your life, I get copied keys." The gentler "Good Things" completes the trilogy and rounds out the album with its open-ended resignation that "good things come when you stop looking."
Along with her reckless vocals, Edwards' insistence that place can affect identity and emotion has earned her numerous comparisons to Lucinda Williams, and her empathetic depiction of dead-end characters shares a strong kinship with Freedy Johnston. These comparisons are not without merit, but both Edwards' physical and lyrical voices are resolutely her own: she absorbs these and other starting-point influences but is never beholden to them. In fact, on Back to Me, she has joined their estimable ranks.
-Stephen M. Deusner, pitchfork
Produced by Colin Cripps
Engineered by Denis Tougas and Jeff Elliott
Museum of Canadian Music Musée de la Musique Canadienne Calgary Vinyl Music Museum Canada Museum of Recorded Sound Canada Music Museum Calgary Music Museum