Naming your album Wheel is basically like opening up a never-ending jar of metaphors: metaphors for the cyclical nature of all things, for life and death, for infinity, and, of course, for literal forward movement. Even though they are varied, all these concepts have somehow wiggled their way onto Laura Stevenson’s third studio release, the aptly titled, Wheel.
The first thing that peaks the ear is the sheer accuracy and depth of Stevenson’s voice. There’s a familiarity that emanates from her that’s immediately appealing. Even if you’ve never heard a word from her before, she has an endearing quality in the sass and cleverness of her lyrics. “Sleeping on hard wood is harder when you’re hardly any good/And every sound hits so much louder than it should,” Stevenson sings on “Eleonora.” Charming, sharp, and to the point.
Stevenson’s voice dances all over the scale, sounding effortless but confident in her ability to achieve everything she has set out to do. That confidence is what allows her to cover the topics she does (death, heartbreak and the impending apocalypse) without sending the album into a gloomy tailspin. She can take these rather serious ideas and poke a bit of sarcastic fun at them, like in the upbeat first single “Runner” or the beachy-sounding “Sink, Swim.” “Oh California, I tried to warn yah/The earth is gonna quiver for yah,” she sings over an almost eerily cheery guitar line.
Though the rock and pop tracks on the album are all charming and succinct, it’s hard to ignore Stevenson’s talent for penning poignant ballads. It’s understandable why she wouldn’t want to be stuck in that niche for the whole album, but damn, “L-Dopa” is pretty close to perfect. “Every Tense” is not far behind—this is the kind of song you listen to 15 times in a row just because it feels like the right thing to do. There is something about the simplicity at the core of these tracks that allows them to sneak into your heart and make a home there before you even notice it happening.
Stevenson’s band, the Cans, are also worth taking note of. The arrangements are never fussy or obtrusive, the always-perfectly-placed strings adding a rich layer of texture to all the songs where they show up. The brass is shiny and bright, creating an odd brand of relaxed precision that only very talented musicians can make sound good. “Telluride,” an absolute gut-buster of a track, is the culmination of all things good between Stevenson and the Cans in terms of arrangement and balance. There is the perfect amount of hard and soft, give and take, tension and release.
Overall, Wheel showcases Stevenson’s obvious skills as a powerful singer and an intelligent writer who can craft a great story. Thematically, the album is rich and varied, but there is a slight inability to maintain a through-line musically that can prove to be jarring on occasion. Mostly, it’s the middle track, “Bells and Whistles,” that throws things out of whack, with an unprecedented gnarly guitar mish-mosh that doesn’t add much to the song or the album as a whole. It’s always great to see a folky artist explore harsher textures, and Stevenson is perfectly capable of producing those types of tracks as is evident by a winner like “Triangle,” but in this context it just feels clunky next to the delicacies displayed throughout the album.