'Heartleap' is the third and final record in a pastoral folk trilogy that has spun over forty years. Vashti Bunyan released her first record, 'Just Another Diamond Day', in 1970; panned by critics in its time for its natural elements and seeming triviality, it's become a staple for any fan of folk rock. Bunyan only recovered from her bad press in 2005, when she released her understated followup 'Lookaftering'. She's now releasing 'Heartleap', ten songs of a similarly sparse fashion, for FatCat. This is a cult musician in motion!
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Vashti Bunyan may be releasing music again, but she's never quite recovered from the shots fired at 'Just Another Diamond Day', her psych-folk masterpiece. Ignored in its time and revived thirty years later, Bunyan's debut retains a singularity in her discography: it was proudly twee. It happily engaged in the silliest pastoral lore, chilled with the animals as if they were friends, and danced in the tree-line. Since then, Bunyan has remained the same sterling folk artist -- her arrangements have only got tighter and fuller -- but a weariness and seriousness has pervaded her music. 'Lookaftering', her second record, was released thirty-five years later, and while her muscle memory for making an acoustic ballad remained, there was less eagerness in her sound; songs were longer and more reflective, usually constructed around indoors-y piano that suggested Bunyan's reclusive phase had left a very real mark. Her collaborative effort with Animal Collective, 'Prospect Hummer', conveyed a vital misunderstanding between the band -- obvious fans of the side of her folk that made her freak -- and the songwriter, who had since mellowed out. For those looking to Bunyan for confirmation that nature is a weird, wonderful place, 'Just Another Diamond Day' is your only choice.
'Heartleap' has been considered a conclusion to Bunyan's folk trilogy, but it's more like a twin to 'Lookaftering': a short, compact record of precisely constructed tunes that no longer look to nature like it's magical. This is hushed realism, love songs whispered like they don't want to be a bother -- Bunyan's voice is forceful and loud, but so breathy you feel you could have imagined it. 'Heartleap' is at its best when it can mine this modesty and stillness out of complete and lush arrangements, such as opener "Across The Water", which is easily this record's choice cut. The guitar and strings interplay beautifully, while percussive chimes appear like stones skimming across water. On this track, Bunyan captures small movements in nature and suggests they're beautiful because they happen every day.
At other points in the record, Bunyan nods to her sparser talents, creating a brooding ballad out of barely plucked guitar and little twinkling motifs on "The Boy". The song is, for Bunyan, typically unobtrusive, clocking under two minutes as if nothing else need be said. It slides into the tonally bright "Gunpowder" seamlessly, another track of wiry acoustic guitars that interlock and provide a soft surface for Bunyan to fall onto. These moments may not be as instantly gratifying as "Across The Water", which remains the year's most welcoming tune, but that's because 'Heartleap' hasn't been written for us. It feels like a chance for Bunyan to air her contentment, to claim a small victory over the people who repressed her talents. 'Just Another Diamond Day' will go down as the classic, but I'll hold "Blue Shed", with its dreams of isolation and privacy, as the quintessential Bunyan tune: "I wish I had a blue shed with no one in it / I wish I had a closed door with only me behind it". Against her will, though -- and usually with the help of some flute or violin -- these songs always ascend, and we get to share in their beauty.
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