DiCristina Staircase / Fat Cat
hile I know nearly nothing substantive about the current state of science fiction, I safely believe that Lookaftering is one of the greatest science fiction works of 2005. Like all science fiction, Time is splayed and sulking at the center, subject to imaginative throttling and hearty slapping-arounds, often twisted beyond recognition—of course, that’s the point. Taking her time carefully and honestly, Vashti Bunyan’s recording “career” has been on a 35-year long pause since 1970’s Just Another Diamond Day, an album that has justly morphed from lost folk oddity to alt-canon classic since its CD reissue in 2000. For whatever poetic nonsense you’re liable to sop up interfacing with the Caring World, time is not a fickle mistress, it’s you that’s the problem, and it’s for this reason that Lookaftering can be an occasionally remarkable album. In the warm canopy of Vashti Bunyan’s voice and in the silken mist of her dream, time feels supple, even static; like magic, Lookaftering fell out of the same wormhole as Just Another Diamond Day, in the same breath of a world interrupted.
It’s easy to see Vashti Bunyan in 1970 as the Faerie Queene of the Wood Sprytes, a vaguely psych female folk chanteuse gentler than Sandy Denny and less weird than Linda Perhacs; it’s also easy to wrap Diamond Day in with the other work of legendary folk producer Joe Boyd, whose resume includes the contextually seminal work of Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, and Fairport Convention. In 2005, you could see Lookaftering as an acknowledgement of her status as Goddess Guide Emeritus to the new carriers of the Brit/psych-folk torch. The problem with both of these phases is that they have succumbed to the grinding time monster, whereas Vashti Bunyan, very simply, hasn’t. (Check the embedded temporal damnation of the term neo-folk or the delightfully aged—but aged nevertheless—sound of Incredible String Band if you’re in doubt.)
Her voice—which sounds sort of like being under a sky of falling rose petals—has remained intact, and so have her songs. Lookaftering actually does plenty of talking about time, talk that tickles a little bit because you can feel time sublimate. On “Here Before,” the line “Once I had a child, he was wilder than moonlight, he could do it all like he’d been here before” clings like dew to backward-running bells; the aural pun chills, dissolving into a sea of murmurs. It’s an easy album to be rendered dumb by, and sometimes being simply cradled is better than being carried anywhere. One could imagine that space has been abstracted in Bunyan’s view too, but it’s always space as a product of time—the folk-fable of pre-industrial and non-urban society. Even though the ancient vibe has been often ascribed to her music, it’s just as easy to see her dreamy agrarianism as a post-apocalyptic whisper. Lookaftering is as much Now as it was Then as much as it Will Be.
The album has plenty of guests, and thankfully, they’re mostly kept quiet. It was co-arranged and produced by self-described “post-classical” composer Max Richter, whose sterling naturalism serves as a good complement not only to Vashti’s delicate voice and style, but rests unobtrusively alongside the paradoxically warm crispness that Joe Boyd lent her songs over three decades ago. Her disciples—Devendra, Joanna, and a couple of the guys from Espers—lend graceful accompaniment, but are kept voiceless and anonymous. Lookaftering, in theory, could’ve easily been turned into a embarrassing group show after her collaborations with Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective, which were good but still propped her up like an icon and didn’t give her the room she needed. Still, it isn’t to discredit her, because Lookaftering serves as a reminder of the potency of her spirit, that it really only took one album to create a small, reverent glow around her.
Somewhere—I can’t remember where—someone said that picking on Vashti Bunyan would be tantamount to kicking a kitten. All the kitten-kickers might have perked up just then, but they’ll have to hold their boots for someone else. Frankly though, none of our manners matter when talking about Lookaftering. The album swells with beauty, but an intimate, unapologetic beauty drained of gravity or mystery that invites and comforts in one stroke, stronger than the gravest clock and gentler than a stray sigh.