"Angelic ... saintly ... those were and still are the words I use to attempt describing her," raves psychedelic troubadour Devendra Banhart, who for once isn't espousing an ear of corn or a mama wolf but the flesh-and-blood British singer Vashti Bunyan. Lookaftering, Bunyan's first album in 35 years, features Banhart and the other "freak-folk" artists to whom she serves as unwitting matriarch. Unwitting, that is, because as much as any influential singer of the past half-century, Bunyan's musical career has been an afterthought to her own rugged life.
Her debut, 1970's Just Another Diamond Day, was recorded after an adventure that scans like a novelist's cynical parable of the '60s. At the dawn of her twenties, the London native cut the music industry ties that had generated her first singles and set off with her boyfriend to join Donovan "Mellow Yellow" Leitch's art commune in the Hebrides Islands off the coast of Scotland.
"I gave up everything familiar," Bunyan recalls, ringing in from her home in Edinburgh. "And it took me two summers by horse and cart, so by the time we got there, it was all over." Here's the punch line: When she finally arrived, Donovan had moved on to ... Los Angeles. But Bunyan, soft-spoken and quick with a laugh, sounds anything but bitter. Nor should she -- her journey yielded an album whose subsequent 2000 reissue made critics' lists and seems to have saved lives. "When I first heard Diamond Day, I was safe," Banhart says. "I was provided for by something very, very tender and powerful."
His hyperbole is justified. The album, recorded on a quick trip back to London in 1969, is all heart -- a cycle of lullabies, without electricity or percussion, that belongs to a decade less coarse than the '60s, much less our own. Bunyan's trilled vocals, like an otherworldly Joni Mitchell, are too sincere to let in the kind of saccharine overload that would make songs about turning seasons, stone cottages, and snails in love sound merely precious. "I was really writing those songs to comfort myself," she explains. "It was quite a tough journey and I missed my mother and it rained a lot."
When Diamond Day was released on the now-defunct Philips label, Bunyan received five copies -- "which I instantly gave away," she admits -- and retired to the Scottish countryside to raise her children and fulfill her back-to-the-land dream. "I thought the album was lost to the world," she recalls. "I had a tape of it, which I stuck in the back of a drawer, and if anybody ever got it out and asked, 'What's this?' I would just take it away and say 'Nothing.'"
But an album inspired by a pre-industrial dream was saved by the Internet age. When Bunyan Googled herself in the late '90s, she found that Diamond Day had gained a cult following. In what must be a loathsome experience for any artist, she ordered the shady, shoddy bootleg version of her own album: "I was so upset by it that it made me set about trying to do a legal reissue," she says.
The celebrated reissue garnered waves of critical acclaim, and stranger still for Bunyan, earned her a sizable, increasingly famous fan club, including Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and members of the Animal Collective, Piano Magic, and Mice Parade. Many of those artist-fans contributed to Lookaftering, perhaps the longest-awaited sophomore effort in music history.
The palette of Lookaftering is remarkably similar to Diamond Day: Bunyan's hypnotic acoustic plucking, elegantly backed by harp, strings, wispy organ, and crystalline piano. The difference is in the strokes. Whereas its predecessor was homely and pastoral, Lookaftering is more rooted and down-to-earth. Gone are the sunsets and storybook characters, replaced by bittersweet ruminations on motherhood, death, and distance. "Diamond Day was all about the outside world," Bunyan says. "It was story songs. It was picture songs. This one is much more about what's inside of me."
Lyrical gems and arching melodies abound here, burnished by her broadened voice. Perhaps the album's finest tune, "Feet of Clay," is the kind of bittersweet swoon that Rufus Wainwright would conceive, if only he could match his words to his tone. In it, Bunyan sings to someone just out of reach -- Don't think about me dreaming here/I will see you fly away/While in my head you hold me near/And pull me off my feet of clay -- but she sounds uplifted by what she sees, rather than saddened by the lack of contact.
Like all of Lookaftering, the song resonates with genuine maturity and the simple revelations of ordinary life, qualities rarely captured by artists who spend their lives in the music industry. Bunyan would probably agree that Banhart's description of the album is apt: "Much better than a dream."
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