It’s taken me more than a month to review Vashti Bunyan’s new LP, Heartleap. That’s only fair though, considering it’s been nine years since her last release, the wonderful Lookaftering. Although, that was record time for Bunyan, who waited a staggering thirty-five years in between that release and her debut album, Just Another Diamond Day. Kudos to her for having the patience and gall to release music that far apart and have it still feel relevant, especially considering the rise and fall of multiple artists during that time span. What’s more impressive than that, however, is that the content of Hearleap is so astoundingly beautiful and uncomplicated, in an epoch where artists strive for complexity and extravagance.
The album opens with “Across the Water,” a soft, reserved track. Its focal point is Bunyan’s hushed, pained voice, which wafts around violins, nylon-stringed guitars, and watery keyboard effects. The next song, “Holy Smoke,” continues this formula. Bunyan’s vocals sound whispery, yet there is an element of anguish she seems to capture, like a folk version of Nico. These two tracks are a fantastic way to bridge the nine-year gap in releases and establish the tone of Hearleap.
Up until “Jellyfish,” the LP is full of haunting ballads meant to sadden the listener. On this track however, Bunyan breaks out the whimsy. She sings “last night I dreamt that I jumped in the sea,” and she makes that image extremely palpable through her keyboard effects. The same instruments from previous songs are accompanied by a pan flute that drives the opening.
Bunyan returns to the melancholy, however, on “Here.” An eerie guitar riff laces Bunyan’s moans, and when she reverts back to singing, a whiny second guitar only increases the ominous atmosphere. The track is bookended by a music box that juxtaposes the dark tone with an innocent melody.
She chooses to end the album the same way she started it; with a reticent ballad filled with sad guitars and Bunyan’s distressed voice. “Heartleap” is filled out with a stunningly raw piano that excels in buttressing the wintry tone of the song. The track is everything a brilliant closer should be: one that incorporates the themes of the rest of the album while also building on them and leaving the listener gasping.
Vashti Bunyan said that Heartleap will be her last release. Whether or not we can believe these claims based on her pace of releasing new music throughout her career remains to be seen. But if they are true, she has left us with a chilling, memorable, and beautiful work of folk music. The thematic range she possesses alongside the marvelous instrumentation result in a unique and rich sound that few people can match. Bunyan’s potential swansong is a piece of gold.