In 2014, having released four studio albums, Kathleen Edwards returned home from yet another promotional tour for her 2012 album, ‘Voyageur’, put away her guitar and stepped back from the business. The hamster wheel of writing/recording/touring/repeat had lost its appeal and break time was urgently needed to prevent long term damage to her mental health and creative ability. She moved back to her hometown of Ottawa and opened a coffee shop, tongue-in-cheekily named Quitters. It took an out of the blue call in 2018 from long term fan Maren Morris, inviting Edwards to a songwriting session in Nashville to kickstart Edwards’ journey back, culminating in the creation of ‘Total Freedom.’
With song themes including nostalgic memories of her ex-husband, beloved pets passing, the simplicity of life (or how it should be), lifelong friendships that begin in childhood, and the pain of falling out of love, this album is a positive reflection of life, with all its imperfections and upsets. Edwards vocal styling has an echo of Suzanne Vega, with interesting phrasing and key changes and a smart writing style. The record opens brightly with ‘Glenfern’, named after the street Edwards lived with her ex-husband, organ and a catchy guitar hook, a happy reminisce of those times together. ‘Hard on Everyone’ chugs along agreeably, with its twangy guitar opening, reflecting on the difficulties of leaving a bad situation before a change of pace into ‘Birds on a Feeder’, the song that defines the Total Freedom theme of the record….as Edwards says “the relief of not being responsible for anyone except the dogs and feeding the birds and the joy of the simplicity of their company.”
The idea that life is – or at least should be – ‘Simple Math’ is the subject of the next track, using the story of reconnecting with a childhood friend after many years (“I’m OK being friends forever”) and just picking up from where things were left off. Tales of falling out of love (‘Feelings Fade’ – “You wouldn’t be the first but not knowing hurts worse”), being taken for a ‘Fool’s Ride’, with more Vega-esque vocal intonation, and the perceived injustice and senselessness of a death of someone quite close (‘Ashes to Ashes’) keep the album moving at a very listenable pace.
Songs about beloved pets passing can be maudlin (yes, ‘Old Shep’, I’m looking at you), but ‘Who Rescued Who’ focuses on Edwards’ pet retriever Redd’s arrival at an opportune moment (“Dogs and alcohol go so good together”) and his ensuing popularity with anyone he met. The song makes a further acoustic appearance as a bonus track at the end of the album. It all comes to a close with a painful depiction of a break up ‘Take It With You When You Go’ (“You’re just a picture in my wallet that I can’t tear up”), which builds slowly from a simple acoustic guitar, through organ, additional rising guitars, swelling vocal and then it’s gone.
This album has a kind of unfussy structure about it, simple arrangements, strong songs and Edwards’ excellent vocal tone keeping everything together. Some of the songs, whilst not on the dark side of the road, are not quite on the bright side of the street, yet the overall feel of the album is upbeat, that sense of total freedom, without perhaps the intensity of previous work. After that 8 year hiatus, Edwards’ audience will be pleased she finally went back into the room where the guitars are kept.